Once again the Republicans in Lansing are working to privatize more of Michigan’s state-run prison operation. This time the plan is to close down two prisons in the state and relocate the prisoners to privately-owned North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan. Before the state legislature votes on this issue, they need to take a closer look at where this prison is located, and some of the problems that currently exist.
Every day GEO Group keeps North Lake open, they’re losing money. Either the prison closes, or they need to find another client. Last May when GEO Group started mass-hiring staff for the soon to be activated prison, new and returning employees were told there would be about 700 prisoners from Vermont at the end of June, and 1000 prisoners coming from the state of Washington by October of 2015. It’s now April of 2016, the promised inmates from The Evergreen State still haven’t shown up, and the third out of state contract GEO Group had been in negotiations with last fall obviously didn’t materialize. Now Michigan could be moving prisoners into North Lake and take over operating the entire facility.
Lake County has a permanent population of around 10,000. The largest town in the county, Baldwin, has about 1,200 people living there. The county has abundant state and federal forest land, and the region is famous for white water rafting, trout fishing, and jazz music festivals offered in historic Idlewild. While there are many positive things to enjoy in Lake County, there are also some deep problems. Lake County is the poorest county in the state with the highest child poverty rate. Affordable housing is an epidemic problem, and jobs are hard to come by. GEO Group promised opening the prison would bring money to Lake County. That has yet to happen.
The Michigan Department of Corrections taking over North Lake to house up to 1700 prisoners means relocating required staff to operate the prison. In June of 2015 GEO Group hired around 125 people to activate the prison for Vermont and Washington. Some people were rehires, but many were new to Lake County and the state of Michigan. Local housing for these people didn’t exist, and some had to commute as far away as Big Rapids, Cadillac, and Ludington where housing was available. Employees had to live in motels for months until they could move into rentals or homes they bought. GEO Group certainly didn’t consider it their responsibility to help locate housing for their new employees, what will the state do when faced with the same problem?
What about the 240 prisoners currently at North Lake? Vermont Department of Corrections signed a contract with GEO Group in May of 2015 to house up to 675 prisoners. The first group of 290 arrived from Kentucky and Arizona at the end of June, and not one more prisoner has been sent to North Lake from Vermont since – while 50 have since been sent back. Does the Michigan Legislature intend for these 240 out of state prisoners to remain at North Lake, or will GEO Group need to ship them to a different facility if they get the Michigan contract? Local Vermont news is full of stories about how the prisoners currently at North Lake really don’t care for being at North Lake all that much.
Another problem for the state legislature to consider are the 70-odd non-union security officers, programming, maintenance, medical, and kitchen staff currently employed there. The job security GEO Group promised never happened. The anticipated boost to the local economy has been insignificant. People had to find housing in other communities and took their money with them. Another unpublished fact is there have been some layoffs at North Lake already. What happens to the people still working there if Michigan takes the prison over? GEO Group will likely relocate some higher-ranking employees to other prisons, just like they brought these people to Michigan last June. The rest will be job hunting in a region of the state that still suffers from double digit unemployment.
These are obviously things the subcommittee in Lansing never considered in their vote to lease North Lake Correctional Facility from GEO Group. The Republican-controlled state government once again only wants to cut expenses now, throw their hands up later when their actions create nothing but more problems for the people of Michigan. Another mess the taxpayers may be strapped to pay for in the future.