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Private firm set to open immigrant prison in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan.

Lansing — A private prison company that owns a vacant facility in Baldwin announced Thursday it has won a 10-year federal contract to house non-citizens sentenced for immigration offenses or other federal crimes.

The Geo Group Inc. said it plans to “reactivate” its 1,800-bed North Lake Correctional Facility under a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Florida-based firm said it expects to generate roughly $37 million a year in incremental annualized revenues from the deal.

The contract and two others it manages in Texas were awarded “under a long-standing procurement, for the housing of non-U.S. citizen criminal aliens, commonly referred to as Criminal Alien Requirement,” the company said in a press release.

Most non-citizens held in similar federal facilities are serving sentences for non-violent drug offenses or for re-entering the country after deportation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has raised concerns about the safety of private prisons in other states. 

Geo Group's announcement comes less than three months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blocked the sale for another former state prison to a different company that wanted to open an immigration detention center in Ionia.

Whitmer rejected the planned sale because the company — Immigration Centers of America — could not meet her demands that the facility only be used to house single adults, and none separated from other family members after they arrived in the United States.

A Whitmer spokeswoman declined comment on announced plans for the private prison, which the state does not control. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections “has no jurisdiction or supervision over such an arrangement between” between the federal bureau and Geo Group, said spokesman Chris Gautz.

Corrections Director Heidi Washington “opposes the idea of privatizing state prisons as she believes incarceration is a core function of government,” Gautz added.

Howard Lodholtz, chairman of the Lake County Board of Commissioners, said he was just learning about the project Thursday afternoon but thinks it is a “super” turn of events that could create hundreds of jobs in the region.

“We’re in bad shape,” Lodholtz said about the local economy, noting recent flooding that destroyed roads and two tornadoes that ripped through the county in August. “We’re not the richest county in the state, so anything will help us.”

An October 2018 environmental site assessment prepared for the Bureau of Prisons indicated the federal government was seeking new facilities to house up to 9,540 “low-security, adult male, non-US citizen, federal inmates.”

Consultants said the North Lake Correctional Facility would not require additional construction or repurposing of interior space to house a portion of those inmates. It is located between Big Rapids and Ludington in northwest Michigan. 

The federal contract could create 320 permanent jobs in the village of Baldwin, population 1,497, and Lake County, population 11,426, according to the assessment. 

The Michigan and Texas facilities “will play an important role in helping the agency meet its long-term need for high quality, cost-effective services that comply” with federal standards," GEO Chairman and CEO George Zoley said in a statement.

The ACLU has criticized conditions for non-citizen inmates inside “Criminal Alien Requirement” prisons in Texas, saying private facilities tend to have higher levels of violence than public prisons.

“Private prisons are in the business of making money, not ensuring the safety of those who are locked up,” said ACLU of Michigan policy counsel Kim Buddin, who voiced “serious concerns about the safety and wellbeing of the people who would be detained in this facility.”

Immigrants are also entitled to due process, Buddin said.“Opening this facility fuels mass incarceration, and the continual drumbeat to target and scapegoat immigrants nationwide."

In its release, Geo Group said its facilities are "highly rated by independent accreditation entities, including the American Correctional Association, and provide high-quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments."

The Baldwin prison "will have the same visitation policies as all similar Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities," said Pablo Paez, executive vice president of corporate relations for The Geo Group.

The federal prison bureau began contracting with private companies in 1997 to help alleviate overcrowding and respond to congressional mandates, according to the U.S. Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Many of the inmates incarcerated in these contract prisons are Mexican nationals with convictions for immigration offenses who have 90 months or less remaining to serve on their sentences,” the inspector general said in a 2016 report.

Operating by a different name at the time, Geo Group built the Baldwin prison in 1999. It initially operated as the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility and housed inmates for the state under a contract that ended in 2005.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a 2015 law allowing Geo Group to operate the facility as a maximum security prison, paving the way for the company to contract with Vermont to house prisoners from that state. That contract reportedly expired in 2017 and the facility has sat empty.

Some Republican state lawmakers pushed the Michigan Department of Corrections to purchase the Baldwin prison “a few years ago,” but the state did not need the facility at the time, Gautz said.

“GEO’s ‘last and best offer’ for it was for $100M and we kindly said ‘no thank you’ on behalf of the taxpayers.”