LANSING, Mich. — An inmate demonstration at an Upper Peninsula prison over the weekend is evidence that budget cuts have made correctional facilities more dangerous, guards warned Monday.
Inmates at the Chippewa Correctional Facility in Kincheloe south of Sault St. Marie were upset about having less exercise time outside and that their rooms now house eight men, up from seven in July and early August, said Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan. The demonstration by 75 to 100 prisoners in the “big yard” started about 8:20 p.m. Saturday and ended without violence 40 minutes later, Marlan said.
“There’s no room in the inn,” said Mel Grieshaber, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, a labor union for corrections staff. “I’m very worried about it.”
“Open bay” units in Michigan prisons held six prisoners five years ago. The housing units, which originally were meant to hold five, house minimum-security and some medium-security inmates.
To save money, cash-strapped Michigan has been squeezing more inmates into existing prisons while closing other prisons and paroling more prisoners. The state’s prison population of about 47,000 is the lowest since 2001.
Grieshaber said tension is up inside prisons and correctional officers are finding more knife-like weapons. One prison had to be locked down recently because of fights, he said. He added that there are “blind spots” in the cramped eight-man bays that put officers who patrol the areas at risk.
“I don’t think we’re overreacting,” Grieshaber said of the potential for rioting or other violence.
Marlan responded that the Corrections Department is trying to become more efficient because it accounts for one-fourth of the state’s general fund, which pays for most state services besides K-12 schools. But he said Corrections Director Patricia Caruso, a former warden, would never put employees at risk by making prisons unsafe because of budgetary pressures.
“She just won’t do it,” he said, noting Caruso has rejected packing inmates into gymnasiums as some other states have done.
The Chippewa facility, which had been two separate prisons, was recently consolidated into one. An additional 160 inmates were brought to the complex, which has nearly 2,400 beds.
The protesters started Saturday by making a lap around a track. Then they gathered at some basketball courts.
When ordered to return to their rooms, about 60 stayed and yelled for other inmates to join them. A handful did, but everyone went back inside after more guards arrived, Marlan said.
The department reviewed video footage Monday and has identified 25 prisoners who instigated the demonstration, he said. Of those, at least 10 will be ticketed for inciting a riot — a major misconduct violation.
Marlan said prisoners were partly upset because the acting warden had limited their use of a small yard with a weightlifting pit. The warden is concerned the small yard does not have enough lighting or video cameras, Marlan said, but that does not mean the area is closed for good.