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Plans to bring some of the most dangerous offenders from Vermont and Washington State to Michigan

Nearly two weeks ago, the legislature narrowly passed a bill to allow GEO, a for-profit multinational private company, to bring highly dangerous prisoners from other states to a facility it runs in the northern Lower Peninsula.

This is in Baldwin, in Lake County, which is believed to be the poorest county in the state. Baldwin needs jobs, and this would create some. But would they be worth the price? Governor Rick Snyder has plainly been struggling with this; he hasn’t signed it yet.

Yesterday I spent some time with State Senator Steven Bieda of Warren in Macomb County, a place which also badly needs jobs. Bieda is a conscientious attorney known for a special interest in this state’s history and traditions.

And he thinks the idea of bringing some of the most dangerous inmates thousands of miles to Michigan and turning them over to a private firm is terrible just about every way you look at it. When the state Senate was about to vote on this bill, he rose to offer a rare, impassioned speech asking his colleagues to reject it.

“I have numerous objections to this proposal,” he said. “If you care about human decency, the idea that prisons should try to rehabilitate inmates, the safety of our workers and citizens and the spending of state dollars, you should too.”

For one thing, it sounds like something out of Charles Dickens.

Michigan certainly needs new jobs and industries. But do we really want to go from being the automobile state to the nation’s privatized prison colony? You may not have considered this, but for-profit firms have every incentive to make as much money as possible.

They are more than likely to cut corners, and have no economic interest in early release of prisoners since they only get paid while prisoners are locked up.

Besides, Bieda told me, studies show that prisoners do better and are less likely to commit new crimes when they are released if they are housed close to their families and communities. GEO intends to bring some of the most dangerous offenders from Vermont and Washington State and stick them in Baldwin.

Bieda noted, “These individuals already feel isolated and alone, and moving them hundreds of miles away from their friends and family will only intensify that.” That won’t make rehabilitation easier. But there is a more pressing problem.

As he told his colleagues, “We also have to acknowledge that (these prisoners) are a high-risk population that could pose a real threat to our workers and residents, people we would be importing to Michigan and housing in a privately-run facility with little state input, supervision or oversight."

Bieda noted that over the weekend, two highly dangerous inmates escaped from what was supposed to be a maximum security prison in upstate New York.

When I asked Senator Bieda who would be liable if some of the privatized prisoners escaped from Baldwin and did damage, he said it wasn’t clear.

But he was sure about this: “It’s a sad state … when the legislature is looking to treat prisoners as a commodity and import (them) to create jobs and make money."

He’s hoping the governor will ask himself: Is this really the kind of state we want Michigan to be?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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