Senate OKs reopening Mich. prison for Vermont inmates

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The State Senate voted Wednesday to allow Vermont inmates at a mothballed private prison as critics labeled the move as risky profiteering and the first step in a hidden privatization agenda for Michigan’s corrections facilities.

Detroit Sen. Coleman Young charged that legislation allowing the reopening of the prison near Baldwin “is nothing more than an opportunity to profit privately off corrections ... off the poor decisions of others.”

Backers of the House-passed bill, who prevailed on a 23-14 vote, said the facility would provide 150 or more jobs in financially strapped Lake County by taking in prisoners from Vermont and, possibly, from other states.

“I challenge you to go to Lake County,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart. “I challenge you to talk to the people of Lake County.”

The measure, now headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, would let Florida’s GEO Group Inc. house high-level Vermont inmates there.

Built in 1999 for young “punk” Michigan prisoners, it was idled in 2005 owing to higher costs than state-run prison, a declining state prison population and other issues.

Vermont, which long has depended on out-of-state prisons because its own are overflowing, has a contract with GEO to put an initial 319 inmates at Baldwin’s lock-up. The prison has space for more than 1,700 inmates.

Debate on the plan was laced with political suspicions.

Opponents argue it’s a sneaky effort by majority Republicans to reopen the contracting out of prison space to private firms as an option for Michigan inmates. Backers see it as a fix for a partisan anti-business decision by the administration of ex-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

The Senate narrowly defeated a proposed amendment from Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren prohibiting Michigan inmates at the prison. Bieda, an attorney, said the loosely written bill could be read to allow Michigan inmates, too.

Bill supporters said ongoing debate about whether Michigan should privatize any of its prisons should be separate and not hold up approval of what’s largely an effort by GEO Group to recoup expenses and make a profit on its facility.

“It’s a private business engaged in a private contract,” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph. It wouldn’t be right “to tie the hands of that facility in the future,” he argued.

Among Republicans voting for the Bieda amendment, Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba urged the Senate “be honest about the intent” of the legislation.

“The conversation (about privatization) should be had now,” said Casperson, who voted for the legislation despite the defeat of the amendment. He said lawmakers aren’t being entirely honest “by not saying what the long-term intent might be.”

The state is allowed to house its prisoners privately. Michigan’s Department of Corrections looked at reopening the Baldwin prison under a GOP-backed bill passed in 2013, however, and found it wouldn’t produce the required 5 percent savings.

Republicans defeated several additional Democrat-proposed amendments to limit the types of prisoners who’d come to Baldwin. Some warned reopening the prison under private control is asking for trouble and could make Michigan a dumping ground for other states’ most dangerous prisoners.

Part of the Senate debate sounded like a referendum on corrections policies during Granholm’s eight years as governor.

Hansen charged she based the decision to close the prison on political expediency and “broke a contract” that was to last 10 years. The Baldwin area ended up with heavy debt for infrastructure improvements it no longer can afford, he said.

Democratic Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor said the state dumped the contract because the private prison was chronically understaffed, had more violence than other state prisons and the owners were guilty of contract violations.