Bill seeks to delay Michigan prison closures | Michigan Radio
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Bill seeks to delay Michigan prison closures

Dec 13, 2019

Michigan's prison population is at its lowest point since the 1990s, and it's expected to shrink even more in the years ahead.
Credit Katie Raymond / Michigan Radio

State Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) has introduced a bill that would require the Michigan Department of Corrections to provide a one-year advance notice of the closure of any prison in the state, as well as require the department to conduct community impact studies.

McBroom's district saw the closure of the Ojibway Correctional Facility last year. The facility was the region's largest employer.

"All the taxpayers of Michigan are owed an explanation on the proposed closure," McBroom told Gongwer News Service, adding the Marenisco Township community where the facility was located was "still in the process of being numb" over the impact of the closure.

Although the Michigan Department of Corrections hasn't yet taken a position on the bill, MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz says at first glance, there are numerous issues.

He says the bill appears to reflect an outdated view of prisons as job creators.

"Incarcerating people is not an economic development tool," says Gautz. "And prisons should not be thought of the economic drivers for the communities that they are a part of. Prisons are not there to provide jobs, they're to provide public safety, and the mark of our success is when we can continue to safely reduce our prison population."

Gautz says the prison population is shrinking, which is a good thing, as crime levels drop and what he calls ineffective policies like long sentences for non-violent crimes are replaced with other, less punitive programs.

He says keeping prisons open when they are not needed costs Michigan taxpayers money. The department's appropriation from the state is currently about $2 billion. Gautz says a one-year delay in closing a prison would reduce the amount of money the department would save from closing it, aside from causing numerous other potential problems, such as lowered employee morale.

Gautz adds there were multiple reasons the Ojibway Correctional Facility was closed, in addition to having too many prison beds in the state overall. 

He says because of its remote Upper Peninsula location, the department could not hire sufficient mental health professionals, as well as staff able to provide educational and other programming for inmates.

That meant that prison inmates with serious mental health needs or those requiring special programs had to be sent to prisons in the Lower Peninsula, while those with fewer needs would be housed in the U.P. facility, where it was difficult or impossible for them to receive visits from family.

Senator McBroom has also introduced a companion bill to increase access to job training resources for communities facing the closure of a prison.

"For a community to suddenly lose hundreds of people, we're seeing communities devastated by the loss," McBroom told Gongwer.

Gautz says that most prisons in Michigan, however, are not the primary employers in their communities, unlike Ojibway Correctional. So he says the impact of most prison closures is not as large.