GEO prison bill faces opposition

BALDWIN – Efforts to pass multiple pieces of legislation that could lead to the reopening of a privately owned prison in Baldwin, have been stonewalled in the Michigan House of Representatives.

Last month, two bills (SB 877 and SB 878) sponsored by state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, passed the state Senate by razor thin margins and were sent to state House of Representatives.

Both pieces of legislation were referred to the House Appropriations Committee on March 8 and no further action has been taken.

Two additional bills have also been stalled in the state House.

House Bill 5174, introduced by state Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, and HB 5177, introduced by state Rep. Joe Haveman both have yet to receive a vote in the state House and remain in limbo.

All of the legislation would allow the state to enter into a contract with to house adult inmates at the North Lake Correctional Facility, located at 1805 West 32nd St. in Baldwin.

State Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, has said that the the reopening of the facility is crucial to the economy of Lake County.

“Many of us agree that (the GEO Group) is important to this area but it’s (also) important to the state,” he said. “The option of not only having state prisons but we can provide protection for our people at a much lower cost by doing privatizing of certainly 1,750 of those beds.”

The movement to allow prisons to be privately run has met with strong opposition by the Michigan Corrections Organization, a union that represents over 7,500 of the state’s corrections officers.

“We are against prison privatization philosophically,” MCO President Tom Tylutki said. “We believe it’s a government function. You don’t see police departments privatizing.”

“Across the nation you see private prisons are closing,” he said. “They are not staffed properly, you see a lot of staff turnover.”

Haveman said that the lobbying from the MCO is working on his colleauges.

“We got all my colleagues hearing from the unions that they don’t facilities in their area closed,” he said. “You can’t demand the Department of Corrections to cut costs then block everything trying to be done about it. You can’t have it both ways.”

The prison, which is privately owned and operated by the GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., has sat mostly empty since October 2005.

The facility, then known as the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility had its state funding revoked by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm amid budget shortfalls and allegations of inmate abuse.

The prison temporarily housed inmates from the state of California in 2011, but they were returned back to California after California Gov. Jerry Brown ended the program of sending prisoners out of state.

The facility has remained without prisoners and operated by a skeleton crew in hope that the facility can secure another contract to house inmates at the prison.

Haveman said his bill is not meant to create jobs or open facility in any area, but as a way to cut costs from the budget of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“We’re trying to find a competitive way to cut costs from the Department of Corrections,” said Haveman, the chairman of the House Appropriation subcommittee on Corrections. “It’s about learning better ways to do things at the Department of Corrections at a better cost.”

The Department of Correction’s annual budget was about $2 billion for the fiscal years of 2012 and 2013.

Tylutki feels that corrections are often not properly trained as the state workers, which requires more guards in a private prison and that since guards have the ability to use lethal force on inmates, they should be properly trained and state employees.

Haveman said that about 73 percent of the Department of Corrections budget is spent on spent on personnel costs and that after seeing declines in Michigan’s prison population for several years, the state’s prison population is starting to rise again.

“Hopefully we can open some of these closed facilities and not have to close any in other areas.”

Even though all bills that would allow prison privatization have thus far been stalled, Haveman said that the issue is not over.

“We are going to tell members that if they truly want to see reforms in the Department of Corrections, they are going to have to give,” he said. “We’re going to keep trying.”