BALDWIN, Mich. (AP) — The outgoing warden of the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility says it would be a crime for the state to stop using the prison.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed 2006 state budget, announced last month, would trim $50 million from the Department of Corrections. More than one-third of that savings — $18.8 million — would result from canceling the state’s contracts sometime this summer with The Geo Group Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla.-based prison-management company that owns and operates the maximum-security juvenile prison in south-central Lake County.
The inmates would be transferred to a state-run adult prison — the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer — where they would be housed in a separate dormitory.
Her plan also calls for closing four state-run prison facilities — Camp Sauble in Mason County’s Freesoil, Camp Tuscola in Tuscola County’s Caro, the Southwestern Michigan Community Corrections Center in Benton Harbor and the Buena Vista Corrections Center in Saginaw — for additional annual savings of $6.1 million. All four are to close June 30.
Granholm is dealing with an estimated $772 million shortfall in the $8.9 billion general fund budget that takes effect Oct. 1. Without the prison closings, the governor would have to find other ways to cut the $24.9 million now being spent on the targeted prisons.
Until the current fiscal year, however, the state paid only a small portion of the cost of operating the juvenile prison, which opened in July 1999.
Michigan received a five-year federal grant that covered $17 million of the expense each year through the budget year that ended Sept. 30, Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said yesterday. The Violent Offender Incarceration/Truth in Sentencing grant required a 10 percent match from the state.
Frank Elo, the warden of the juvenile prison, said his inmates get counseling and educational training that they wouldn’t receive at an adult facility. Without it, many would spend the rest of their lives going in and out of prison, he said.
“We have all kinds of therapy and counseling programs,” said Elo, who will step down sometime before beginning his new job this fall as a criminal justice instructor at Ferris State University. “We have a high school GED program. We have special ed teachers here. We have pre-GED teachers here. We have vocational education teachers here. We have social workers and psychologists on staff.
“I mean, we are very intensive on programming for these kids to help them turn their lives around. They ain’t gonna get that at a level-five (maximum-security) state prison.”
His goal is to turn as many inmates as possible into productive members of society, but many already have committed heinous crimes. Some are to remain behind bars for the rest of their lives.
Elo scoffs at the mention of recent news reports saying most of his inmates aren’t the violent offenders that the prison was intended to house when it was being planned. He produces biographical thumbnails of dozens who are there because they murdered, raped or brutally assaulted adults or children.
The seriousness of their crimes is reflected in their surroundings. The prison is clean and high-tech on the inside, but the outside has two gun turrets and is surrounded by double razor wire.
A specially equipped Ford Explorer that patrols the perimeter is referred to as an “armed response vehicle.” There have been no successful escapes.
The prison has 480 beds and all are filled, Marlan said. Inmates range in age from 14 to 19 and skew older. This week they include 463 between 17 and 19 (they must be released or transferred to an adult prison when they turn 20) and 17 age 16 or under.
Elo, who retired from the state after working as a warden at prisons in Adrian and Jackson, said shutting down the Baldwin prison would “devastate” Lake County, one of the nation’s poorest. There are 230 people who work at the facility, making it the county’s largest employer.
The prison pumps probably $70 million to $75 million into the local economy each year, Elo said.
“This is a community that’s devastated and needs economic development,” he said.
State Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democrat from Ypsilanti who is on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections, supports the governor’s plan to close the juvenile prison but realizes the hardship it could bring to the region.
“We have to make cuts across all of the budget and at this point in time, we have to ask which cut is more damaging to Lake County and to the citizens of Lake County, where the prison is currently housed,” she said. “And I would suggest that cuts to Medicaid would be far more critical to the members of the community because it funds clinics, it funds hospitals and it funds care for families (making) $35,000 or less.”
The governor’s office and legislative leaders are discussing many aspects of the state budget, including the proposed prison closings. There has been a movement to delay taking any action against the youth facility until Sept. 30, the end of the 2005 fiscal year, but little is being said about doing anything beyond that.
Greg Bird, a spokesman for the Office of the State Budget, said closing the juvenile prison is a necessary cut.
“What we’re housing there are prisoners that we could be housing at our correctional facilities, and we have open, available beds to accommodate that population,” he said. “So we could pull those people back into our (state-run) prisons, cancel the contract and save the funds.”