State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, recently introduced a bill to ban privately owned prisons in the state. 

The bill comes after the news that the North Lake Correctional Facility, a prison owned by the correctional institutions company GEO Group, is reopening. It has been contracted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house non-U.S. citizens for immigration offenses, according to the Detroit News.

However, even if the bill passes, it will not impact the use of the North Lake Correctional Facility in this case because it was contracted by the federal government, Irwin said.

“There’s nothing a state can do that can impair the federal government and their ability to spend their money how they want,” Irwin said. “So that’s just the practical reality of the law — that the state can’t pass anything that would prevent the federal government from engaging their contract.”

In Irwin’s opinion, Michigan has not had a good track record with private prisons. He cited the same prison, the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, as an example of a private prison that has treated inmates inhumanely.

“They promised cost-saving but instead had cost overruns,” Irwin said. “They cut corners in ways that resulted in people being abused, and the state being sued, and the state having to pay out all sorts of money, and many of our people being treated inhumanely. It was a total disaster.”

Despite the bill not directly impacting the facility, Irwin said it sends a message to private prison companies and the federal government that Michigan does not want privately owned prisons in the state.

History professor Heather Ann Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, said private prisons are a mechanism for companies and people to profit off of mass incarceration and the suffering of others.  

“Private individuals and stockholders and companies are profiting off of the fact that other people in society have been victimized by a crime, or victimized by the fact that their sentences are far too long and disproportionate to whatever they’ve been accused of doing,” Thompson said.

LSA senior Kate Westa, co-president of WeListen and former vice president of Young Americans for Freedom, said while she agrees there are many problems in the prison system, the solution is not to eliminate for-profit prisons. The market competition could actually help reduce repeated offenses, Westa said. 

“I think that it falls on common narrative that just because something is free market or for profit that it’s inherently bad,” Westa said. “I see the free market and an increase in competition often helping in a lot of ways that it otherwise isn’t when the government runs the entire show.”

Irwin said he’s noticed support from his colleagues in the state Senate and House of Representatives for private prisons, since they can create job opportunities in more rural areas of Michigan. 

“I think that the bill faces an uphill battle because many of the same legislators who are in the Senate now served with me in the House when we passed legislation to support private prisons,” Irwin said. 

Martha Abrams, an LSA senior studying history with an emphasis on crime and policing, acknowledged private prisons do need people to work in them, but she said because these facilities are not owned by the state, the level of training that employees are required to go through is minimal. That can lead to abuses of power against the prisoners, Abrams said.

“There’s an argument within Michigan right now, that there’s an economic benefit within the community because prisons create jobs for residents,” Abrams said. “The problem is that there’s a severe decrease in training for the people that go into these correctional facilities in sort of any field, so they’re not trained how to deal with people who are in a psychologically harmful environment.”

Thompson also said private prisons can lead to an increase in mass incarceration because a higher prison population will generate more profits. She said in order to keep the facilities full, prisoners will sometimes be moved away from their friends and family, which can have repercussions when it comes time for them to re-enter society. 

“The state will promise a private company that ‘X’ number of their beds will be full, so that incentivizes criminalization; it incentivizes keeping people in prison longer, even though all evidence suggests that that’s bad for the broader society,” Thompson said. 

Thompson said Irwin’s bill is important for Michigan because it will ensure that correctional facilities and criminal justice are kept in the hands of the government and out of the private sector.

I think we have to have some serious legislative action on preventing any company who is in the business of locking people up from impacting laws that determine how long they’re locked up,” Thompson said. “And also, we should — as principle — outlaw anyone from being able to profit off of the misery of somebody else.”

Abrams agreed the bill is a step in the right direction, but thinks more reform is needed.

“For people who don’t know a lot about prison history and mass incarceration in general, it’s important to note that banning private prisons is certainly a step, but it can’t be the final one,” Abrams said. “It’s often referred to one of these red herrings legislatively, that, once it gets passed, it’s certainly great, but people will stop fighting as hard.”

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