MCO IN-DEPTH: Talk of a closure continues, although budget recommendation doesn’t call for one

For the seventh time since his election, Governor Rick Snyder presented last month an Executive Budget recommendation and detailed his plans on how best to move Michigan forward.

The corrections budget recommendation, which remained relatively flat, lays out continued funding for the next fiscal year of $2 billion dollars with nearly $1.96 billion coming from the general fund. The proposal also includes one-time funding to train 177 new corrections officers, which, combined with the $9.2 million allocated in 2016-17, will give the MDOC the ability to train roughly 550 new officers in 2017-18.

MDOC has worked hard to keep down its budget, Director Heidi Washington said last week in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections. She pointed out that for the next fiscal year, about 19 percent of the state’s general fund budget would go to corrections, down from a high of about 25 percent.

The budget recommendation does not call for the closing of another state run correctional facility, but rumors and conversations in the House and Senate continue to swirl regarding the possibility of another closure.

MDOC officials made comments against a closure on several occasions in 2016 and also said they weren’t comfortable closing a prison until they see a sustained decline in the inmate population. While the inmate population has decreased in recent years, future projections made in 2016 were flat. (Projections for this year have not been updated as of last week.)

As an alternative, MDOC supports the closure of individual housing units which will lend them more flexibility as opposed to facility closures, which are costly to undo.

Last week, Director Washington defended that decision telling the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Corrections, “as we accumulate (open) beds, we have shut down housing units, so right now we are in the process of doing that and we will continue to do that.

“I know one of the things people always want to talk about is closures…I can’t tell you today that we are in a position to close because we don’t have the beds today. But obviously closure is the ultimate measure of our success. When we are ready to do that, we are not afraid to do that, as I have talked to you in this committee (about) many, many times before.”

Washington said there are currently about 1,000 vacant general population beds, but at least 500-700 of those beds should remain empty “to accommodate transfers, to accommodate movement within the system, and most importantly, to accommodate any spike in the population.”

MCO leaders believe closings will lead to more overcrowding, understaffing and ultimately sacrifice the security of the institutions.  By closing housing units, our leaders believe the MDOC is taking a practical and measured approach and should continue to advocate for responsible management of the inmate population.

One overlooked aspect of this debate is the fact that some unit vacancies were artificially devised to save money. While some housing units sit empty, others are double-bunked, creating a threat to the safety and security of MDOC staff and inmates. For example, in Level II units at Kinross Correctional Facility, eight inmates are jammed in small cubes built for four. KCF was the site of a riot in September 2016. A lack of facility space was among the inmates’ complaints. Specifically, they were upset about the cramped housing units, law library, and visiting room.

Officers also voiced these concerns. “It’s overcrowded,” one officer told MCO leaders days after the riot. “We keep closing prisons, but we’ve got seven and eight people in a cube, and cubes that were designed for four people. And restroom facilities that were designed for half as many inmates, kitchen facilities designed to cook for half as many inmates, recreational facilities for half as many inmates. And you’re putting in twice as many inmates, all vying for those limited amount of resources.”

MCO does not believe these types of situations help the Department in their mission to rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism.

MDOC administrators have said officers are their partners in rehabilitating inmates, and they are working to foster an environment where vocational and other programming can flourish. But officers are most effective when they aren’t overworked and understaffed in an overcrowded housing unit. These problems will only grow worse, and remove the MDOC further from its goals, if another prison is closed.

MCO is sharing this information because corrections officers have a right to know what conversations are being held in our statehouse and what could possibly be on the horizon. MCO leaders don’t agree with all the MDOC administration’s comments and goals described in this article but think members should be aware.

MCO will monitor these conversations and keep members updated. To make sure you don’t miss information, sign up for our emails with your home email address.