Last Thursday the Michigan House approved legislation that would help private prison company, the GEO Group, get one of their shuttered prisons up and running again.
House Bill 4467, if passed, would allow GEO Group to house Level V high-security prisoners at the now-empty North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, MI. Although the prison has been empty since 2011, Michigan law allows for the GEO prison to house prisoners, including those from other states, but only prisoners requiring Level IV security and below.
According to reports, the Michigan Department of Corrections does not have plans to send Michigan prisoners to the Baldwin facility and is not taking a stance on the legislation. Rather, GEO Group is negotiating contracts with two other states to house prisoners at the Baldwin facility that are asking for more “flexibility” and this bill would grant it to them. GEO has not disclosed which states they are in negotiation with for the Baldwin facility, but we know from the company’s most recent quarterly earnings call that there are pending procurements to house prisoners from Vermont and Washington state in out-of-state facilities.
Additionally, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Bumstead, argues that reopening the facility would bring much needed jobs to the city of Baldwin, located in the poorest county in the state.
The bill only narrowly passed in the House with a 57-53 vote and now moves on to the Senate. We believe passing this bill is the wrong choice for Michigan, and here’s why:
When the Baldwin facility opened in 1999 as the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility (MYCF), a prison for youth sentenced to adult prison time, problems soon arose. According to a report, “Performance problems started right away. A hearing by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections in August 2000 revealed the understaffed youth prison was three times more violent than the state’s other maximum-security prisons. Teens were assaulting corrections officers, attacking each other and trying to kill themselves”. Finally, after a damning audit, the state terminated its contract with GEO at Baldwin in 2005. GEO Group’s (then known as Wackenhut Corporation) sordid history at this facility should be a red flag. Why should anyone expect otherwise this time around?
We know that private prison corporations like GEO Group cut corners to maximize profits. Many times these cuts come in the form of lower paid and under trained guards, which compromise the safety of staff, guards, and prisoners alike. Opening the Baldwin prison to out-of-state maximum security prisoners would be taking a very dangerous risk for all involved. Take the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center (NOCC) in Youngstown, OH as an example.
Similarly to Baldwin, in the mid-nineties the city of Youngstown was economically depressed, with unemployment rates in the double digits. When Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) offered to build a prison and promised jobs to the community, they were welcomed with open arms. To fill the prison, CCA had negotiated a $182 million contract with the District of Columbia to house 1,700 prisoners, most of whom were classified as maximum security. The inexperienced guards and short staffed prison soon saw prisoner on prisoner violence, including two stabbing murders. Then in the summer of 1998, six prisoners cut a hole in the fence and escaped in broad daylight while the outside yard was unsupervised. Youngstown mayor George McKelvey later told reporters, "Knowing what I know now, I would never have allowed CCA to build a prison here."
According to MLive, “State Rep. Rose Mary Robinson, D-Detroit, questioned whether housing out-of-state inmates would cause unnecessary challenges for their families and attorneys, and those concerns were echoed by Lois DeMott of Citizens for Prison Reform.” We know that the simple answer is yes, it would.
The fact that private prison corporations offer states an opportunity to house their prisoners across state lines can lead to many problems. Take Vermont as an example. For more than a decade, in response to prison overcrowding, Vermont has relied on out-of-state private, for-profit prisons to house prisoners far from home. Today, there are several hundred Vermont prisoners in a privately operated Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) prison in Kentucky, and approximately 30 Vermont prisoners are even farther away in a CCA prison in Arizona. The sheer distance and cost of travel create a significant, sometimes insurmountable, barrier to maintaining supportive connections to family and loved ones — connections proven to contribute to better outcomes upon release. Families already bear the significant emotional and financial burdens of having a loved one incarcerated, which are only exacerbated when their loved one is shipped out-of-state.
Additionally, shipping prisoners away to for-profit prisons allows for states to delay seeking much needed reforms that get to the root of over incarceration and prison overcrowding. It is a costly band aid that hurts prisoners and their families, and only serves to benefit private corporations seeking to fill their empty prison beds. If the Michigan legislature passes this bill, they would have a hand in stalling progress on criminal justice reform in other states.
The Michigan Senate should stop this bill now.