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State Senate budget cuts prison spending, hurting already-understaffed facilities

Women's prison
Michigan Department of Corrections
Under the Senate budget plan, the Women's Huron Valley would lose $1.3 million compared to this year's funding levels. MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz says that would strain the understaffed facility.

The State Senate proposed reducing funding for Michigan prisons, because the number of prisoners in the state continues to decline. But MDOC officials are balking at the suggestion. 

According to State Senator John Proos, there are 1600 fewer inmates in Michigan prisons than in February 2016.

That is largely how Proos justified the Senate’s proposed $41 million cut to prison funding in its budget plan. It's money that correctional facilities would no longer have to fund the day-to-day operations.

“It’s really a good news story about a continuing decline in the prison population,” Proos said. “What we did is we simply applied the per-prisoner cost, multiplied that times the number of individuals that were less, and then applied that reduction [equally across all correctional facilities].”

But according to MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz, while prisons in Michigan might be housing fewer prisoners than a year ago,  the overall prison population isn’t declining fast enough to warrant closing another correctional facility.

Gautz says having a handful fewer prisoners housed within a prison does not amount to much in the way of operational savings. “We’re not at a point where we can close whole housing units or a whole prison, but they’re cutting us like we are," he said.

According to Gautz, the Department of Corrections is hemorrhaging staff. Gautz says there are 600 open officer positions in the department right now, due largely to older corrections officers retiring in recent years. He says the budget cuts would make this problem worse.

“Every prison in our state has officer vacancies. This would exacerbate that problem, and exacerbate the problem of overtime costs." Gautz said.

If approved, the across-the-board funding cuts prisons would receive in the Senate budget plan would mean further reductions at prisons already trying to manage a manpower shortage. Gautz says at some prisons, officers have to work double-shifts or mandated overtime.

And although the total prisoner population is declining, the number of prisoners requiring some sort of specialized care is growing.

“If anything, mentally ill prisoners, female prisoners, and the aging and elderly prisoners are three populations that are doing nothing but growing,” Gautz said.

The Women’s Huron Valley Correctional facility is the only women’s prison in Michigan. It has 36 vacant officer positions currently, and would face an additional budget reduction of just under $1.3million if the Senate plan is adopted.

Gautz says that would mean eliminating an additional staff positions.

It’s a similar scenario at Woodland Center Correctional Facility in Whitmore Lake, where the state houses male prisoners with serious mental illnesses. Gautz says Woodland has 32 current officer vacancies, and the proposed budget cuts would require cutting 12 more staff positions.

Both Gautz and Proos said they were optimistic about being able to settle on a “middle ground” when final budget negotiations begin.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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