Private Prison Measure Was Among Lame-Duck Bills Pushed Through Michigan Legislature

Among a spate of eleventh-hour bills quietly pushed through the Michigan legislature during last week’s lame-duck session was one authorizing the state to contract with private prisons. If signed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R), the bill would clear the state to enter into a contract with a private prison operator that has been accused of enabling juvenile abuse, deaths, and riots at its facilities.

The corporation, Geo Group, owns the one now-vacant private prison in the state, which closed as a juvenile detention facility in 2005, and then temporarily housed California’s overflow prison population last year. Although the proposal was billed as a potential cost-saving measure, and will only allow a contract that saves the state at least five percent, the facility had initially stopped operating because it was actually costing the state more money. The State Senate’s bill analysis explains:

A 2005 report by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General concluded that “MYCF’s daily cost per prisoner was higher than 33 of 37 other State correctional facilities”, that the benefits to housing youth prisoners separately were unclear, and that it would be more cost effective to allocate the prisoners housed there among the other facilities.

However, it would be inaccurate to characterize this report as evidence that the North Lake Correctional Facility is necessarily an inefficient place to house prisoners. The reason the facility, then operating as MYCF, was not cost effective was primarily a shortage of maximum security prisoners.

Referring to the lack of prisoners in Michigan as a “shortage” is an unfortunate reflection of the mass incarceration culture that has led the United States to become the number one jailer. It also reflects the attitude of the private prison industry, which spends millions to lobby for policies that incarcerate more Americans. In fact, an earlier version of the Michigan bill was proposed by State Rep. Jon Bumstead (R) just nine days after he received a campaign contribution from a GEO Group executive who lives in Florida.

A federal judge found in April that the GEO Group “allowed a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions to germinate, the sum of which places the offenders at substantial ongoing risk” at a juvenile detention facility. And a high-level Geo Group executive recently lost a case against his former daughter-in-law for threatening to use his influence with ICE to challenge her immigration status. According to a video posted on YouTube, he testified that it would not be wrong to lie to a federal agency.

The prison population in Michigan has continued to decline since the juvenile detention facility closed, according to the bill analysis, and there is no reason to believe it will go up again. If it does go up, there are several now-vacant prison facilities that are “mothballed” – maintained in working condition in the event they should become necessary. It is unclear whether the fixed cost of maintaining these vacant state facilities would even be considered in calculating the cost savings of contracting with a private prison.

Other bills pushed through the Republican-controlled legislature included an anti-union “right-to-work” measure, an extreme abortion ban, and a rewrite of Michigan’s concealed handgun law that would, among other things, allow guns in classrooms (which Gov. Snyder said he would veto, according to reports).