Still-shut prison seals deals for 1,675 inmates

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The owner of a private prison near Baldwin isn’t waiting for a final go-ahead from the state to announce its plans to transfer up to 1,675 inmates there from Vermont and Washington state this year.

Gov. Rick Snyder has yet to sign a bill the State Senate approved Tuesday that would allow inmates requiring the highest levels of security at the prison, which has been closed since 2005.

But Florida-based The Geo Group Inc. announced more than a week ago it has contracts to house up to 675 Vermont inmates and 1,000 state of Washington inmates at what it’s now calling North Lake Correctional Facility.

Geo’s announcements on a business newswire said the transfer of Vermont inmates would begin in the current quarter of this year and Washington inmates would start arriving there between September and December.

The moves drew more criticism from a state corrections officers union, which joined Democrats in opposition to prison privatization.

“A lot of people will say you’re just opposed because you’re a union, but it’s really narrower than that for us,” said Andy Potter, vice president and chief of staff for the Michigan Corrections Organization representing more than 10,000 state corrections officers.

Potter said his organization, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, believes inmates have been entrusted to the state for supervision, control and care.

“It’s a moral issue,” Potter said. “When you’re incarcerating someone, the state should handle that. Our corrections officers are like a police force in there, and you shouldn’t want a private police force.”

Geo — which owns or manages 106 prisons with 85,500 beds in the United States, Australia, South Africa and United Kingdom — said it expected annualized revenues of $15 million from Vermont and $24 million from Washington when each state reached its full allotment of transferred prisoners. Each state’s contract is for five years, the company said.

During the Detroit Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island this week, Snyder said he hadn’t yet decided whether he will sign the controversial legislation, which the House passed early this month on a 57-53 vote.

The Senate’s 23-14 approval vote followed vigorous debate in which Democrats argued it would make Michigan a dumping ground for other states’ worst prisoners. Republicans said it’s simply a private business deal that will create jobs in financially strapped Lake County.

The company doesn’t need state permission to house lower-security inmates at Baldwin. State law allows local, state or federal inmates below Level IV from other states if Michigan doesn’t use it as a state prison, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis.

But Geo needs Snyder’s signature on the legislation so it also can lock up Level IV and Level V prisoners at the Baldwin facility. Those are inmates rated by prison officials to be the most dangerous and requiring the tightest-security living arrangements behind bars.

Democrats accused the Legislature’s Republican majority of secretly hoping to make the Baldwin prison part of the state’s prison system again.

Michigan’s Department of Corrections looked at reopening the prison under a GOP-backed bill passed in 2013, but found it wouldn’t produce the required 5 percent savings.

It was built in 1999 as a private “punk” prison Republican Gov. John Engler said was for young offenders who needed to be locked up separately from hardened criminals in the general prison population.

But it soon was converted to a regular prison, then closed six years later by the administration of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Prison officials said the state inmate population was declining, it was costlier to run than other prisons and there were additional problems.