“Whack-A-Mole” in Michigan

Keeping up with the goings-on of the private prison industry is like playing “Whack-a-Mole.” Every time you smack down a proposed prison, another one pops up elsewhere, like the pesky critter in the old carnival game. Just a few weeks ago, an extraordinary coalition of people of faith joined with labor, and civil and human rights groups to expose Florida’s hasty attempt to deliver more than two-dozen, publicly-run prisons into the hands of the private prison corporations.  It would have been the largest mass prison privatization in the history of the nation.  But on-the-ground pressure coupled with solid research and data helped move the issue. The bill was eventually defeated by just two votes.

These past few weeks the for-profit prison industry has its sights on Michigan.  The Michigan House of Representatives is considering bills HB 5174 and HB 5177 to reopen a youth correctional facility in order to house adult inmates. The North Lake Facility for Youth, or Baldwin facility, was opened in 1998 by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation – now know as The GEO Group shuttered the facility in 2005.  GEO, in a speculative move with high hopes of filling the prison with Californians, expanded the prison from less than 500 to about 2400 beds. The expected California contract did not fully materialize and the GEO Group’s Lake County facility, dubbed the ‘punk prison’, stood empty for some years.  See more about Wackenhut/GEO Group’s atrocious track record at the youth facility after the jump.

-Youth were held in solitary confinement, a few for more than one hundred days at a time.  One mentally ill inmate spent more than 400 days in ‘segregation.’

- Seventy-six suicide attempts were documented from July 2004 through March 2005

- There were confirmed beatings and rapes.

-Parents complained that children with lesser offenses were not safe from those who had committed violent crimes.

-There was a demonstrated lack of mental health and educational services.

-The facility was chronically understaffed.

-It was a violent facility.

In the United States District Court, Western District of Michigan (Case No. 5:05-CV-0128 ) the Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service, Inc. brought a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections “to challenge and remedy the Defendant’s illegal and unconstitutional use of isolation, denial of adequate mental health services, and denial of appropriate educational services to young prisoners with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities. The Defendant’s actions and inaction have caused youth with mental illness and developmental disabilities great and irreparable harm.”

When Michigan closed Baldwin in 2005, it was then hit with a $5.4 million lawsuit by GEO/Wackenhut. The corporation, responsible for the operation of the facility and all of the problems that led to its closing, wanted to keep Baldwin open or force the state to continue its payments for an empty facility.  The case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court of Michigan which ruled: “Defendants [the state of Michigan] were entitled to cancel the lease ... [and] exercise by the state of its contractual right of cancellation does not constitute a government taking of private property.”

And, now The GEO Group and privatization are back. In a state with a declining need for more prison beds, HB 5174 and HB 5177 make no sense.  These bills would allow yet another contract between the The GEO Group (yes, the same GEO Group with its abysmal track record and its unsuccessful suit against Michigan) and the Department of Corrections to fill their beds, for a price, at the Baldwin facility.  To fill those 2,400 beds, Michigan would need to move inmates in from its own public prisons.

Since the state does not need new prison beds, one has to wonder why some members of the Michigan legislature are so wedded to the idea of filling The GEO Group’s beds and coffers with Michigan inmates and taxpayer dollars.  It is time, I think, to follow the money. And, to ask hard questions.  Who has taken funds from the private prison industry?  Who will? The Geo Group has been very clear that its future is tied to “its ability to secure contacts to develop and manage new correction, detention and mental health facilities.” And the world’s largest private prison purveyor, Corrections Corporation of America, recently sent a letter to forty-eight governors with a proposal to take over their prisons and contract back to the state.

In Florida we worked to stop the unnecessary transfer of facilities from the public to the private sector.  In Michigan we are working to stop the speculative and expensive folly of recessitating an empty and unnecessary for-profit facility. Will Michigan be the next ‘pay-for play’ state, rewarding those who are willing to ‘play’?

The billion-dollar prison corporation’s game is the willingness to make a profit on the lives of incarcerated Michiganders. In this game of “Whack-A-Mole”, our mallet is truth, transparency, and the public good.

The American Friends Service Committee/Michigan is inviting people of faith and good will to sign onto their petition against prison privatization at http://support.afsc.org/site/Survey?ACTION_REQUIRED=URI_ACTION_USER_REQUESTS&SURVEY_ID=3623

Or you may email Natalie Holbrook at NHolbrook@afsc.org

For more information about prison privatization please visit us at GrassrootsLeadership.org or call us at 704.332.3090, x1.

Thank you.