Whitmer: 'Michigan values' led to blocked sale of shuttered prison

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has blocked the sale of a shuttered Ionia prison, vacant more than a decade, to a for-profit detention company that would use the facility to house detained immigrants.

The Deerfield Correctional Facility was closed in 2009 by the Michigan Department of Corrections and is owned by the Michigan Land Bank.

Immigration Centers of America, the would-be developer of the 47-acre site, had planned to house 500 to 600 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees at the facility, and to employ some 264 people there.

The sale had been approved in October under then-Gov. Rick Snyder. But as Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown explained, a "thoughtful and deliberative review process" was initiated, and "from that due diligence, it was determined that ICA was unable to agree to terms that guaranteed that this facility would not be used to detain adults who had been separated from their children," among other issues.

"The governor believes that building more detention facilities won't solve our immigration crisis, and she also believes that separating families doesn't reflect our Michigan values," and "decided that the sale of state property in Deerfield to ICA will not move forward."

Daniel Balice, mayor of Ionia for 30 years, said that the city hadn't yet made its decision on the plan for the facility, but added that "the loss of the economic benefit is certainly discouraging. It’s been vacant for quite some time."

Balice has now seen two Michigan Department of Corrections facilities close in his community: the Riverside Correctional Facility, and Deerfield, which has sat empty for more than a decade. 

Closed prison facilities mean job losses in a town with an income tax, Balice said. 

"They’re also major users of water and sewer, so that affects the revenues of the water and sewer fund," Balice added. "So when you lose those facilities, it definitely has an impact on the bottom line."

Ionia received no property tax from the Deerfield facility, as it was owned by the state.

"There’s an impact not only on the city, certainly from a property tax perspective, but there’s a major potential impact on the revenue for the schools," Balice said. "The loss of the (possible) property tax revenue is significant. You’ve got income tax, property tax, property tax revenue to other entities, 300 jobs. From a revenue perspective, it was significant."

The Deerfield site is "not pretty," Balice said. "It’s got two razor wire fences around dilapidated buildings."

Balice said that Deerfield was built as the Ionia Temporary Facility.

"They didn’t build these like some prisons that are made of brick and stone. The buildings are certainly in disrepair."

Balice described ICA as a "top-rate organization," citing its commitment to directly address inmate health and its visitation policies. 

"I have no reservations about them at all."

Ionia knew that Whitmer would review the planned sale when she took office. Balice said the governor's office kept the city in the loop through the entire process, but added: "I will feel better for the community when the state repurposes the real estate and assists us in getting something in there that mitigates the economics of the situation."

State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, took issue with Whitmer's decision. 

“I would really like to know what the governor’s plan is to bring 250 well-paying jobs to Ionia and how she plans to clean up the long-vacant former prison property," Albert said in a statement. "The sale of this blighted property has been in the works for well over a year and the governor’s heavy-handed rejection came days before the sale was to be finalized."

Albert accuses Whitmer of "taking a swipe at President Trump" by way of the blocked sale. 

The statement from Whitmer's office mentions Trump only to request that he and the Congress "work together on a bipartisan immigration reform plan."

Said Albert: “It’s obvious the governor’s rejection was about appeasing her political base and taking a swipe at President Trump. Like it or not, people that come into this country illegally are going to be detained. Ionia has been a correctional community since the mid-1800’s. They deserve to have been involved in this decision.”

Immigration Centers of America, ICE and a representative for the city of Ionia could not immediately be reached.

Immigration Centers of America's October 2018 proposal pitched the 166,000 square foot, 600-bed facility as a win for Ionia, ICE, and Michigan.

"The now-vacant Deerfield Correctional Facility would be turned back to the real and personal property tax rolls...The facility will purchase water and sewer from the city, power, cable, garbage and other utilities and needs from local vendors...The Deerfield site will become a major employer and taxpayer instead of an abandoned correctional facility," the document claims on its cover page. 

ICA's proposal touted its "unique" visitation policy, allowing family members and legal counsel to visit detainees every hour of every day, "a policy far more liberal than any other in the nation." That's in addition to video visitation.

The company planned on "demolishing the majority of the existing structures" on the facility and building new, which it anticipated to take 12 to 18 months. The company would provide care, and its medical staff of 25 to 30 people would be on site 24 hours a day.

The build-out was to provide 289 temporary jobs that would bring $3 million in tax money to Ionia city and county, and $6.4 million to the state, according to the proposal. 

The facility was expected to hire 225 people, at a salary of $68,000 per year, along with 39 people for medical and food service, bringing the total to 264.

Earlier in February, public commenters at an Ionia City Council meeting spoke in opposition to the planned project, per the Daily News.

The Daily News report quoted an Ionia county resident named Henry Sanchez, who said “we don’t need a facility like this one. We don’t need this thing to come into our community. This will bring a lot of bad press for Ionia County. I’m strictly opposed to it.”

A Mason man, Mark Pine, seconded the sentiment that the project would harm the community's reputation. 

“If you ask most people in the state of Michigan what do you think of when you hear the city name of Ionia?” Pine is quoted as saying. “Only two words come to mind: Free and Fair. Put these two words together and attach them to your city’s name. You can not put that kind of value alignment up for sale. If you think you can have it both ways, think again.”