By Chad Livengood
The Detroit News
LANSING, Mich. — A proposal to close an Ionia prison and transfer inmates to a privately owned facility has sparked a debate within the ranks of Republican lawmakers about whether only government should be in the incarceration business.
At least one GOP lawmaker believes privately run prisons could be as significant a change in how prisons are run as charter schools were to public education.
"Everybody sharpens their pencils and looks at a new way of doing things when they have competition," said Rep. Joe Haveman, R-Holland.
But legislation authorizing the Department of Corrections to contract with a multinational company to house convicts in its rural west Michigan correctional facility has been stalled for months because there are not enough Republican votes in the House to pass the bill, Haveman said.
"To give up the entire running of a prison, I think, is giving up too much control," said Rep. Mike Callton, a Republican from Nashville in Barry County, who has constituents who work in Ionia's five prisons.
To bypass opponents like Callton, Republican budget writers, instead of trying to get a law passed in the GOP-dominated House, added a provision to the proposed 2012-13 Department of Corrections budget requiring the department to close the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia and accept bids for a privately run prison. The budget plan assumes $7.1 million in net savings to the department's $2 billion budget under the plan.
The department doesn't support shuttering the 1,300-bed prison and wasn't consulted, spokesman Russ Marlan said.
"We feel a closure isn't needed," the department's legislative liaison, Jessica Peterson, recently told the House Appropriations Committee.
Following the January closing of Mound Correctional Facility in Detroit, Corrections Director Dan Heyns had said the agency would not need to close any more prisons in the near future.
Geo Group Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., corrections company, is trying to reopen its 1,740-bed North Lake Correctional Facility near Baldwin after a plan to house California prisoners fizzled. The Lake County facility is specifically identified in the two stalled House bills as a location for a privately run prison.
Geo Group's lobbyist is former House Speaker Rick Johnson, R-Leroy.
Michigan's 43,700 inmates each cost taxpayers about $34,000 to incarcerate annually, according to the Department of Corrections.
"I think it's possible to close this prison and still have enough beds available for our population at a lesser cost," said Haveman, who added the privatization provision to the budget bill.
States see mixed results
Other states have had mixed results with prison privatization.
Arizona's Department of Corrections said in a 2011 report its private prisons ended up costing $1,600 more per inmate annually. A 2007 University of Utah study concluded privately managed prisons "provide no clear benefit or detriment."
"Cost savings from privatizing prisons are not guaranteed and appear minimal," the report says.
Haveman said he's trying to "force" the agency to test the concept of a private prison for adults and likened a pilot program to the Legislature's authorization of charter schools in the mid-1990s, which created competition for public school districts.
But some of Haveman's fellow Republicans don't see the correlation between charter schools operated by public governing boards and private companies running state prisons for profit.
"To me, it doesn't seem like you're comparing apples to apples," said Rep. Rick Outman, a Republican from Six Lakes in Montcalm County who also opposes closing the Ionia prison.
Callton said he'd support a pilot program, but not at the expense of laying off prison workers in his district.
Callton and Outman's concerns about the economic impact of closing the Ionia prison are at odds with fellow Republicans seeking to downsize the footprint of state government.
"These prisons weren't built for the purpose of hiring people and then finding felons to come in," said State Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin. "These prisons were built to reduce recidivism. It's not the government's job to employ people. It's a service we provide."
The privatization plan, though, could be a financial boon for Geo Group or any other private prison contractor, said Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing prison guards.
Geo Group has been trying to restart the prison since the state ended its contract with the former juvenile correctional facility in 2005. In 2010, Geo Group signed a $60 million-a-year contract with the state of California to house up to 2,580 low- and medium-security inmates at the Baldwin facility by 2014. The company had plans to expand the prison and hire more than 500.
From May 2011 to September 2011, California sent 270 prisoners there until its budget crisis forced the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to use in-state bed space, agency spokesman Bill Sessa said. "Since we didn't have funding to send more inmates, Geo requested to terminate the contract because it wasn't cost effective for them," Sessa said.
Grieshaber said the privatization plan amounts to a taxpayer-supported rescue of Geo Group's troubled Michigan investment. "This is an investment gone wrong - and it feels like a bailout to us," Grieshaber said.
Pablo E. Paez, vice president of corporate relations for Geo Group, said the company does not comment on "legislative matters." Johnson, the former House speaker from Osceola County, confirmed he's Geo Group's lobbyist, but referred questions to Paez.
Opposition in the Senate
The House's prison closure plan also has opposition in the Senate, where Republicans have proposed cutting 580 management, support staff and secretarial positions to save $55.8 million annually in the top-heavy Department of Corrections, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw.
"I have real concerns about the goal of this closure and the effectiveness of the closure," Kahn said. "This is actually just blindsiding, as far as I can see, to both the administration and the Senate."
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