BALDWIN — Snow covers the solitary grounds where prisoners once stood and the parking lots remain empty.
The for-profit GEO Group prison facility in Baldwin has been mostly empty since 2005, but it may have a new lease on life after the approval of legislation that would allow it to house prisoners from Michigan correctional facilities.
But first GEO has to show Gov. Rick Snyder the savings.
Snyder recently signed legislation that will allow the North Lake Correctional Facility to house adult inmates again.
The bill includes a requirement that a private-contractor facility must provide written certification and a yearly report to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), demonstrating at least a 10 percent annual savings over the cost of running a state prison.
The Michigan House of Representatives passed the bill during the lame duck session in December that would potentially put Michigan inmates back into the Baldwin facility, which is owned and operated by the for-profit GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla.
The bill had passed in the Senate in March, but sat in the House Appropriations Committee until it was introduced on the House floor last month.
On Dec. 31, Snyder signed the bill into Public Act 599, which amends the Corrections Code of 1953. He announced the bill's singing on Wednesday.
It allows MDOC to contract with the operator of the privately-owned correctional facility to house and manage Michigan prisoners, as well as allows detainees over the age of 19. The former youth correctional facility, by law, could only house juveniles from 1999 to 2005.
However, the legislation does not guarantee Michigan inmates will be housed at the former Youth Correctional Facility. MDOC plans to seek competitive bids in the coming weeks for operations and service to house already incarcerated Michigan prisoners.
"(Original) legislation was very specific of the population that could be in Baldwin. This bill would allow us to change that population," said Russ Marlan, spokesperson for MDOC.
"We're following through with the legislature's bill to put out a request for bids to see what other entities can house prisoners."
If GEO is awarded the contract, it also will be required to interview and consider former MDOC employees to work at the prison and give consideration to the hiring of unemployed National Guard or reserve officers and military personnel who are returning to the state following active deployment.
If MDOC doesn't enter a contract for the Baldwin facility, GEO is still permitted to open it to inmates from other states.
Questionable practices The Baldwin facility was closed in 2005, then reopened briefly to house prisoners from California. It has been empty since October 2011.
Rep. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, he was "thrilled" when he heard Snyder had signed the bill.
"Until that happens, you are kind of on pins and needles," Bumstead said. "This is the first large hurdle. Now it is just a matter of getting the order from the governor, and having GEO put out a good bid that will save the state money."
GEO declined to comment in detail on the signing of the legislation. However, Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations, issued a company statement.
"GEO is proud of its long-standing partnerships, including its past partnership with the State of Michigan and the Lake County community, where GEO developed and financed a state-of-the-art facility that operated in accordance with the state's contractual requirements and adhered to the highest national standards," Paez said. "The (Baldwin) facility provided high quality services at a significant savings to Michigan's taxpayers."
GEO's operations include the management and/or ownership of 101 correctional, detention and residential treatment centers around the world, including those in Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
More than half of those facilities, 59, are in the United States.
In 2011, GEO generated more than $1.61 billion in total revenue, up from $1.27 billion in 2010, according to the company's 2011 annual report, the most recent data available. The company's estimated net income for 2011 was $98.5 million, up from $85.3 million the previous year.
Although its profits may be up, GEO has taken criticism for the way it operates its prisons.
The complaints include poor living conditions, abusive guards and inmate suicides.
In 2006, a female prisoner at the Val Verde County (Texas) Jail committed suicide after allegedly being raped by another inmate and sexually humiliated by a GEO guard for reporting to the warden that guards allowed male and female inmates to have sex.
An Idaho man committed suicide in 2007, seven-months after being sent to the Dickens County Correctional Center. In a letter to his family, he told of having to live in the Texas facility's sub-par living conditions, including constant water on the floor, a "smelly pillowcase," and blood-stained sheets.
His home state sent 125 prisoners to the Texas facility to ease overcrowding in its own state prisons, but moved them to a new facility several months after the incident citing poor living conditions.
Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Evart, doesn't feel inmates at the Baldwin facility would cause any more problems than what is "acceptable," noting that prisoners often find things to complain about.
"If you look at the reports from our other 33 state prisons, we've got many of the same complaints about living conditions," said Booher, whose 35th Senate district encompasses Lake County. "It's supposed to be humane, but not supposed to be a hotel room. They're paying the penalty for what they've done."
Booher said he gives priority to the protection of Michigan residents over the comfort of those incarcerated. If improvements to the living conditions need to be made at prisons in Michigan, they need to come from the Senate and House corrections committees.
"We expect the chairs of those committees to bring forth legislation if we need it," Booher said Marlan believes that if GEO houses Michigan prisoners again there won't be any incidents because the state will be closely monitoring the facility.
"If you're going to set up a contract to have a private company house state prisoners, the responsibility is on state to manage that contract. Where you've seen problems across the country, it is probably due to poor contract management," Marlan said. "If we used any private prison operator, we layout specifically what we want to have happen and contract someone to diligently oversee that. Where you see loose oversight is where you see some of those problems."
Cautious optimism in Lake County Across Lake County, a number of residents said news of the bill's signing was met with "cautious optimism." Although many agree reopening the prison would be positive, they aren't getting too excited yet because they have been let down before.
"It is a good thing, but it isn't anything to order fireworks over and start partying," said Jim Truxton, Village of Baldwin president.
Truxton said he won't be satisfied until prisoners are actually housed at the facility.
He has witnessed North Lake Correctional Facility's saga over the years and "it's been like a roller coaster." He even has a picture hanging in his office of himself and former Gov. John Engler standing at the facility's groundbreaking.
But Truxton also has an interest in seeing the prison reopen because Webber Township installed water and sewer lines to accommodate the prison and it contracts with the Village of Baldwin to treat the wastewater.
With the prison closed, only about 12 residents in the township use the system, said Tony Gagliardo, Webber Township supervisor.
The township lost close to $1 million since 2005 keeping the system running in case the prison did ever reopen.
Webber Township pays the Village of Baldwin for every 1,000 gallons of wastewater it treats. Although Truxton did not know how much the township pays for the service, if it pays nearly $5 per 1,000 gallons like residents in Baldwin, reopening the prison would have a "significant impact" on the village's wastewater treatment budget, he said.
Gagliardo is optimist about the signing, but he too is waiting to see what will happen.
"Trust me, the township has done all they can possibly do (to help the facility remain open), and the community has done all they can do for them," Gagliardo said. "And it is up to (GEO) now to win the contract with the state."
The prison represents approximately 60 percent of Webber Township's tax base.
Although, the GEO Group has continued to pay taxes on the facility, it currently is seeking a tax appeal for 2010 and 2011 because it believes the facility is overtaxed and not utilized for the purposes it was built for.
The GEO Group's current winter real property tax bill is $2.38 million, and its personal property tax bill is about $87,000.
Because the GEO Group still is paying taxes on the facility, reopening it wouldn't have a real impact on the county's revenue, said Shelly Myers, Lake County clerk and CFO.
"The only increase we would see is hopefully we would see new homeowners come into the area - either building or maybe have vacant land and build on such land.
That type of thing is where we are going to see it hopefully," Myers said.
When it was announced the prison was reopening in the past, Five CAP, Inc. built affordable single-family and multi-family housing in Baldwin and Lake County to support individuals living and working in the county. At the time, they were selling as fast as they were being built, said Mary Trucks, Five CAP executive director. However, as soon as the prison closed, the houses were put up for sale and the owners moved.
All of the units built during that time are currently occupied, Trucks said, except for two that were in the process of being built when the prison closed. If the prison does reopen, Five CAP would be willing to build housing units again, she said.
"If (the prison) opens, I think it creates the market that allows for us to do many things in the community, including addressing the shortage of affordable housing," Trucks said. "We see an opportunity to do many things from an economic standpoint that would benefit the community, and from a social standpoint to benefit the community."
Bumstead admits the prison's past practices have made Lake County residents cautious, but he remains optimistic that the prison could stay open this time.
"Hopefully in the next six or eight years (the prison) proves itself that it is a huge savings to the state, which there would be because that's part of the deal that it has to be a minimum of 10 percent savings," Bumstead said. "If that facility is full, it is like $25 million (in savings). If we can get it maxed out, that is a huge savings to the state and jobs to our area."
Not everyone in Lake County will be qualified to work as a corrections officer, but residents could receive the necessary training to become employed at the prison, Bumstead said. Also, not all of the jobs will be in corrections, he added. Employees also will be needed in areas like food service.
Overall, Bumstead feels the bill's signing is positive for Baldwin, Lake County and the surrounding counties, and Lake County Chamber of Commerce President Rick Delamater agrees.
"If it's still dollars being brought to the county and being generated and spent within in the county, those are good dollars. Nobody is going to complain," Delamater said.
Pioneer staff writers Jonathan Eppley and Kyle Leppek contributed to this report.
"We'll do whatever they want us to do for their support and help them along to keep the contracts because we want nothing more than to have that place full too."