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Committee corrections plan reignites prison politics

A taxpayer-financed prison from the tough-on-crime era is back in the news. The Northlake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, Michigan has been a conundrum for taxpayers since it was opened in 1999 (amid more than a little controversy).

Prison privatization

The prison was part of Republican Governor John Engler’s juvenile justice reforms and when, nationally, even Democrats like President Bill Clinton were all about lock ‘em up and throw away the key policies (a legacy even Hillary Clinton is dealing with today).

On top of the adult-time-for-adult-crime policies of the ‘90s, Engler also tossed in another conservative experiment: prison privatization. A prison to house juvenile offenders would be contracted out to a private company, the Wackenhut Corporation. And, thus, the Baldwin facility has been a political football ever since.

The Baldwin prison was shut down by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm because of cost overruns and criticism that there were too many re-offenders.

Now, this current fight is not about privatization. In this case, the owners would actually like the state to take the place back over.

Last year, the Republican-led state Legislature adopted a law - signed by Governor Snyder - to

let the Geo Group use the prison to house high-security inmates from other states. The prison is currently housing out-of-state inmates from Vermont. But, it still has a lot of empty cells and it’s looking for customers.

With that in mind, enter a state Senate budget subcommittee led by Republicans that just adopted a budget calling for two prison closures but, then, leasing the Baldwin prison back from the company that owns it.

Which led even Governor Rick Snyder to go, ah, really? “You have a question, if you’re closing prisons, why would you lease a prison,” the governor asked last week.

Prison politics

Meantime, let’s not forget the spanking the Snyder administration has endured over the disaster that came with privatizing food services.

But, once that prison was opened up north it then became a constituency: the owners, the workers, the people who could be employed in the future.

For plenty of Republicans, privatization advocates, and Up-North politicians hungry to bring home some jobs, the prison, once opened, in some way, shape or form, couldn’t be closed.

Not without a political fight.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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