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New MI prison education facility could sit vacant if state budget fight continues

construction site
Katie Raymond
Michigan Radio
A new vocational village is supposed to be completed this month at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility. It is supposed to offer computer programming and cosmetology courses to inmates, but the state funding for programs is in limbo.

The ongoing state budget fight between Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the state Legislature has left a lot in limbo. The State Department of Corrections says it now has a $10 million hole in its education budget. That means a brand-new, multi-million-dollar facility being built at the state’s only prison for women will sit vacant.

Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington spoke with Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about the funding issue.

The facility in question is a Vocational Village at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti. Construction on the village is scheduled to wrap up later this month. Washington estimates the building has cost about $6 million.

She says the village is designed to provide several types of training for inmates. 

"We will have a computer coding program, and we will have building trades for the women," Washington says. "And we will have commercial truck driving for the women. We will also have cosmetology. We will have our brail program and we will have 3D printing, which is a new trade for us, which will be exclusive at the women's vocational village when we open it." 

Washington says unless the funding is restored, the D.O.C. will not be able to hire nine new teachers for the village and won't purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment for the training programs. And, the department will have to lay off more than 75 current employees. But she notes, the funding problems would extend beyond education.

"Our main areas of focus and concern for us are the replacement of the tethers," Washington says. "(And) the ability to train and recruit an adequate number of correctional officers to fill our vacancies so that we can safely run our prison facilities."

The department would no longer be able to track 4,600 offenders using electronic tethers. That's because it needs the funding to pay for the necessary technological upgrades when Verizon upgrades to its 4G network. 

Washington says the problem occurred because of the way the Whitmer administration and the Legislature were looking at the department's budget balances this year. 

"There were some funding shifts that occured within our budget that were really based upon assumptions that balances existed in some accounts that frankly just didn't exist," she says. "So the money wasn't really there, or it wasn't there in the amounts that the budget that the Legislature produced was based on. And we hadn't done our book closing so there were still transactions that had to occur that had not occurred at the time that they took their snapshot." 

Despite the ongoing conflicts over the state budget in Lansing, Washington says she's confident the issue will be resolved and the educational funding will be restored. 

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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