Tuesday, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a bill permitting a closed correctional facility in Northern Michigan to reopen and operate as a privatized prison under the authority of the GEO Group of Florida. The new legislation provides for the upheaval of a restriction that previously prevented the Baldwin area prison in Lake County from housing inmates categorized under the highest security level, designated by a “Level 5” category. The intent of the legislation was to promote job creation and alleviate economic hardship in one of the state’s poorest regions. Under its new operation, the facility will house roughly 1,675 inmates from other states, such as Vermont and Washington. While the legislation provides some economic incentive — roughly 150 jobs — to Lake County, the privatization of the Baldwin facility only exacerbates existing issues surrounding the country’s high rates of mass incarceration as well as issues of safety and human rights violations.
The economic incentives of the legislation do not outweigh the concerns regarding the high concentration of high-risk inmates and the problematic history of the private company assuming control of the reopened Baldwin facility. The group in question, GEO Group, had issues at the same facility, which led to its closure in 2005. A state audit revealed that with no savings to the state, the GEO Group was also creating a security issue because its low wages led to high staff turnover. Previously, the company has been penalized in other states, such as New Mexico, where it was forced to pay $1.1 million in fines for understaffing one of the correctional facilities it operates. Additionally, at one of its facilities in Mississippi, GEO Group was highly scrutinized for numerous unfair conditions and human rights violations, such as the promotion of fights, sexual conduct between employees and inmates and beating prisoners.
Outsourcing criminal justice initiatives to for-profit companies is a strategy that hasn’t worked well in Michigan in the past. It has created human rights violations that are a stain on the Michigan Department of Corrections, and there’s no indication of any significant change. Outsourcing prison food services to Aramark (a publicly traded company valued at more than $6 billion) has been a recurring problem. Since Aramark began its contract in Michigan in December 2013, more than 100 employees have been fired for alleged misconduct, including distributing drugs, having sexual conduct with inmates and even an attempt to murder-for-hire. Food shortages and troubles with serving unsanitary food last summer caused Snyder to levy a $200,000 fine against Aramark, but the problems persist. This June, more maggots were discovered in Aramark kitchens. Aramark has demonstrated in Michigan the consequences of privatizing prisons: for-profit prison companies have incentive to cut corners to increase profit, often at the expense of the prisoners. Additionally, for-profit prison companies have very little oversight, which is a major issue in an environment where so many human rights violations are already flagrant.
With 698 people incarcerated per 100,000, the United States has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. This mass incarceration serves to tear apart families and communities, while creating a growing population that, once released, will struggle to find jobs and housing due to the stigma surrounding incarceration. Although the U.S. prison population has grown substantially since the 1990s, the U.S. crime rate has gone down, and there’s no evidence to suggest that these high rates of incarceration have aided in decreasing crime.
Allowing this prison to reopen puts Michigan on the wrong side of criminal justice reform. An industry that relies on mass incarceration to profit will not work to rehabilitate prisoners, but will instead strive to keep more prisoners for longer periods of time. It should be noted, however, that the Michigan legislature has taken some steps in the right direction. Newly introduced House bills would end mandatory two-year sentences for first-time felony firearm charges, giving judges more discretion in sentencing. They would also allow these sentences to be served concurrently with the sentences for the underlying offenses. This is what Michigan needs for criminal justice reform, not another private prison.