Michigan House OKs bill to let private prison reopen as maximum-security facility
Lansing — A privately owned correctional facility near Baldwin could reopen as a maximum security prison under legislation the state House narrowly approved Thursday.
The House voted 57-53 to allow Florida-based private prisoner operator GEO Group to house prisoners up to Level V — the highest security designation for prisons — at its prison in Lake County.
GEO Group has been trying reopen its 1,740-bed North Lake Correctional Facility since 2005, when the state of Michigan ended its contract with the company to house juvenile offenders at the facility, formerly known as a “punk prison.”
In 2011, GEO Group had a contract to house California prisoners that fizzled. In 2013, the company submitted a bid to the state to operate a privately run adult prison. The $18.6 million price tag was 44 percent higher than the direct cost for the state to run a facility, state budget officials said at the time.
Six Republicans joined all 47 Democrats in voting against the bill.
“This is not a Republican bill or a Democratic bill, this is a bad bill,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy. “What happens if somebody is killed in this facility? What culpability do we have?”
Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, said GEO Group has a checkered performance record in other states, and he said the bill could lead to further outsourcing of state correctional facilities.
Singh also raised the specter of GEO Group contracting with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house the nation’s “worst criminals.”
“What’s most disturbing to me is you don’t know what kind of criminals we’re bringing into Michigan,” Singh said. “We could be bringing in terrorists.”
On April 28, GEO Group announced it was beginning to mobilize prison staff to reopen the facility within three months.
“GEO does not currently have a contract to house inmates at the facility, but GEO believes that it may secure one or more contracts in the near future and expects it may need to activate the facility in the next 60 to 90 days,” the company said in a statement.
A company spokesman declined further comment Thursday.
Corrections officials have inspected the North Lake Correctional Facility and determined it can safely handle Level V prisoners, spokesman Chris Gautz said.
Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, sponsored the bill. It’s his latest attempt in a three-year legislative struggle to help GEO Group reopen the prison in his rural west Michigan district.
Bumstead said reopening the prison could help create 150 jobs in his economically depressed county, where “the unemployment rate is never below 15 percent.”
“Let’s help the people of Lake County with a hand up, not a hand out,” he said.
Howrylak said he opposes the concept of privately run prisons.
“I think it’s a little bit weird to profit off of somebody’s incarceration,” Howrylak said in a House floor speech.