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Michigan Youth Prison Closed But Problems Continue

During its six years of operation, the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility has been criticized over abuse, suicide attempts, and a policy of filling beds at the maximum-security prison with low level offenders. But even after its closure, the privately run prison continues to poison the community and divide the government.

When the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut) opened the 480-bed prison in 1999, it was seen as an economic panacea for one of the states poorest areas. State and local officials had banked their hopes on a wave of young, violent superpredators. But the wave never materialized. Now local taxpayers are stuck paying for capital improvements, like new water and sewer systems, that were made to accommodate the hulking prison.

Tracy Huling, a New York consultant who has researched the economies of communities around prisons, says the situation in Baldwin, where the prison is located, is the result of short-sighted planning. States have been creating penal colonies for years and there are consequences, Huling said. Its understandable to see how folks get into this situation, but someone has to take the leadership role and say theres got to be a better way.

To fill beds meant for the elusive superpredators, the Department of Corrections (DOC) began housing low level offenders in the expensive Level V prison. Some even alleged prison officials fabricated or trumped up disciplinary charges to justify the placements [see PLN, June 2004].

With the DOC currently housing 49,000 prisoners and not expected to reach capacity until March 2008, Governor Jennifer Granholm decided to save the state $20 million a year--$13.4 million for Geos management contract and $5.4 million for the building lease--by moving the prisoners to cheaper state-operated prisons. The move was accomplished in October 2005 with a line-item veto of MYCFs funding.

But because Granholm neglected to get approval from the Republican dominated state Legislature, her veto sparked a bipartisan battle and a lawsuit. Geo filed suit on November 3, 2005, claiming that only the Legislature could end the states 20-year building lease.

The lawsuit could be rendered moot, says DOC spokesman Russ Marlan, if the Legislature would amend the DOCs budget to exclude funding for Geo. But lawmakers refused. We have no plans to save the governor from herself, Ari Adleer, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, a Republican, reportedly said.

To me that means they have no intention of saving the taxpayers $5.4 million, Marlan retorted. Were making payments through December 3. After that, were through.

Another lawsuit--this one against Geo for neglecting the mental and physical health of the child prisoners at MYCF--has been filed by an advocates group.

Even though we anticipated that the facility was to be closed regardless, we went ahead and filed the suit because [staff] were not providing the proper services to the kids, said Tom Masseau, a public policy specialist with the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service.

Sixty-one suicide attempts were reported between October 2004 and March 2005, said Masseau. This is a significant increase, because for all of 2003, there were only 18 suicide attempts.

The Boca Raton, Florida-based Geo Group is facing problems in other communities as well. At the George Hill Correctional Facility in Concord, Pennsylvania--where Geo has already been criticized for its skeletal mental health services--Geo guard Joseph Franklin Henderson, 47, was arrested by detectives on November 9, 2005. Charged with sexually assaulting a female county jail prisoner, Henderson was being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.

In Virginia, Jeffrey Bruce Shortal, 37, a state prisoner housed at the Geo-operated Lawrenceville Correctional Center, escaped from the Emporia medical center after hitting an unidentified Geo guard in the head with a hand weight and stealing his pistol. Shortal, who managed to commandeer a Ford Explorer, was recaptured after a short police chase that reached speeds of 110 mph.

As for the 220 otherwise unemployable MYCF guards, 190 were hired at state prisons in a humane effort to keep them working. Now if only prisoners were seen as people rather than commodities.

Sources:,,,, AP, Psychiatry News,,

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