Michigan Governor Signs Bill That Allows Private Prison With Troubled History To Reopen

Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill this week that authorizes Michigan to contract with private prison operators, and to re-open a now-vacant state facility run by a corporation that has been accused of enabling juvenile abuse, deaths, and riots at its facilities.

The Michigan facility was operated by GEO Group until 2005 as a juvenile detention center, which an investigative report found had high rates of serious incidents like assaults and suicide attempts. After the state closed the facility because it was losing money, GEO Group invested even more resources into its vacant prison:

After Michigan canceled the contract in 2005, GEO Group continued to try to fill the prison and recoup costs. Beginning in 2008, the company embarked on a $60 million plan to expand the prison from 500 beds to more than 1,700 — even though there were no prisoners. […]

In 2010, California signed a deal with GEO to send more than 2,500 prisoners to the Michigan facility. But less than a year later, the state reversed course and asked for its inmates back — part of a California prison realignment plan that brought out-of-state inmates home.

Beginning in late 2011, legislators in Michigan started introducing bills that would allow the GEO Group to house state prisoners again. According to state lobbying records, the GEO Group spent nearly $30,000 lobbying during the first half of last year, a more than tenfold increase from the same time period a year before. One of the company’s lobbyists is Rick Johnson, a former speaker of the Michigan House.

The new law was among a spate of eleventh-hour bills quietly pushed through the Michigan legislature during its lame-duck session in December. It authorizes only those private prison contracts that save the state at least ten percent. But the GEO Group facility initially shut down because the facility was actually costing the state too much due to a so-called “shortage of maximum security prisoners.”

GEO Group has since expanded the size of its vacant Michigan facility, further incentivizing it to lobby for policies that incarcerate more people and impose longer sentences. Studies in several other states have shown that privatized prisons actually end up costing the state more, even in states whose laws require savings for private prison contracts.

In Michigan, there are several now-vacant prison facilities that are “mothballed” – maintained in working condition should the prison population go up. 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.