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Programs that reduce recidivism could be casualties in budget fight over prison spending

Prison fence barbed wire
Kevin Rosseel
Michigan ranks fourth in the nation for prisoner rehabilitation

The state is hammering out its budget. And lawmakers are having a sharp disagreement with the governor’s office over one of Michigan’s biggest price tags – the corrections budget. Both sides agree rehabilitation and lowering recidivism is the way to go. But they can’t agree on how much money to spend this year.

At stake are programs – like the Vocational Village in Ionia – that have helped lower the state’s incarceration rate.

Outside the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, it looks exactly like you would expect a prison to look. Elaborate fencing and razor wire. Grassy areas punctuated by metal picnic tables bolted to cement.

But inside the D Unit, you’ll find a mechanic’s shop.

Craig Estlick is working on a white state issued car with two other inmates. He will be a master mechanic by next month. He’s been in the program since January. Before he came to prison all he knew about cars was how to change a tire.

Estlick is in prison for a home invasion. It’s his second stint behind bars. He says the first time he went in he didn’t have a plan for when he got out.

“I was just gonna go out into the world and hope for the best,” he said. “And I had a really hard time finding employment and I got into drugs and I couldn’t afford the drugs so I committee some crimes so I could feed my habit.”

The Vocational Village is in its second year. So far, 28 students have paroled out of the program, and 23 of those paroled out have full-time jobs.

The idea is simple: Give inmates the skills they need to get a good paying job. Help them secure a job before they leave prison. Keep them around like minded inmates so they stay out of trouble. And those inmates won’t come back to prison again.

And employers in the skilled trades like the program.

“The new generation is just not into it,” said Michael Lemon. He owns Economy Tool with his son in White Lake. He was at the Village scouting potential new employees. Lemon says employers like him need this type of program.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to look for employment. Which, we’re a growing business, so I think it could be a good fit,” he said.

The Vocational Village is one of the programs the Michigan Department of Corrections is worried about losing. The department is concerned if they don’t get the budget Governor Rick Snyder asked for, some of their programs will have to be cut.

“These aren’t cuts,” said Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph. “This is related to the actual number of prisoners that we have on site.”

Proos has been leading the negotiations in the legislature over the corrections budget. He said he doesn’t want programs like Vocational Village to close, but it’s time to start lowering the tax payer burden on corrections.

“What I’m not flexible on is spending money on beds that are not necessary,” Proos said. “Having taxpayers spend money on buildings that are not necessary.”

Proos argues that the MDOC can work with a smaller budget because these programs have been working. He says with incarceration rates down, they should be able to do more with less.

MDOC Director Heidi Washington disagrees.

Washington said everybody wants to close prisons. It’s how the department measures success. But they can’t close prisons and make cuts until the time is right.

“When the department feels that it has, based on the numbers, an appropriate number of beds to do that, we will move to do that,” she said. “Today, we’re not there.”

Washington says the Senate is essentially putting the cart before the horse.

“Our ability to deliver the programs that ultimately get us to the point of closing a prison, our ability to do that would be severely diminished. If not lost.”

The corrections budget will likely be voted out of conference committee this week.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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