Michigan: Send Us Your Prison Inmates

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Carlos Osorio / AP

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, left, and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm address the media in Detroit

Updated Oct. 22, 2009

It's no secret that Michigan is enduring the most extreme effects of the nation's economic crisis: its unemployment rate stands at 15.3%, and the state is functioning on a temporary budget as legislators rush to close a $2.8 billion deficit. In recent years, the financial situation here has been so dire that Michigan has closed several detention facilities, reducing its prison population by thousands. Now, however, the state appears to be viewing prisoners in a different economic light — as a potential revenue generator.

In particular, Michigan is moving to import out-of-state prisoners and even alleged terrorists who are detained by the Federal Government at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The effort could make Michigan an unlikely player in the increasingly lucrative business of transporting prisoners across borders. Already, several states grappling with overcrowded prisons — including California, Pennsylvania and Vermont — spend millions each year sending inmates to private and public prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and elsewhere.

One of Michigan's key selling points is that the capacity at two prison facilities that are scheduled to close by the end of the year could be significantly increased by double-stacking beds. Michigan would charge some $30,000 a year for each domestic inmate brought to its maximum-security prison at Standish, about a 90-minute drive from Detroit. California has thus far balked, partly because of the cost, but Michigan officials say they are still negotiating with Pennsylvania and other states.

Ironically, the overtures come as Michigan shrinks its own inmate population: since 2006, it has dropped from 51,700 to about 46,000. Officials here attribute the decline to several factors, including an overall drop in crime, the placement of more people on parole and a lower recidivism rate. But in June, as the state's budget crisis deepened, Michigan announced that it would close eight prison facilities by the end of the year, including Standish, which could save some $30 million annually. Standish is expected to be shut down by the end of October, and many of the 600 inmates are already being dispersed to other facilities. Officials here say importing prisoners is a way to profitably use a facility that would otherwise be empty. On Oct. 19, the Standish city council voted to allow federal prisoners, including detainees from Gitmo, to be housed at the local correctional facility.

In a recent interview with TIME, Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm, acknowledged that finances have been a key impetus for reducing the state's prison population. It costs some $30,000 a year to house a single prisoner. "We could be putting that money toward higher education," Granholm told TIME.

At the same time, Michigan appears to be one of the few states that are positioning themselves as a destination for a number of the 216 detainees who are being held at Guantánamo Bay. President Obama has pledged to close the detention facility, although a precise timetable has yet to be completed. Federal officials toured Standish at least once last summer. Granholm said she told the officials that she wasn't going to be open to the idea "unless they could demonstrate this wouldn't put a target on Michigan. It'd be a difficult sell, politically." David Fathi, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch in Washington, urges caution in the rush of states moving into the business of transporting prisoners. "There's a risk that conditions will deteriorate as corners are cut to make more money," he says.

The prospect of losing its prison has put the city of Standish, pop. 1,400 (excluding inmates), on edge. Nearly two decades ago, the town's residents were torn about whether the prison should even be built. But it quickly became an alternative to the dwindling auto industry. It's currently the city's largest employer, and the facility accounts for roughly 35% of the city's budget. Now prison guards are dreading the prospect of commuting five hours a day to the nearest job, if they can find one, or leaving Michigan altogether.

Kevin King, Standish's mayor for the past six years, says most of his constituents want domestic inmates. But accepting detainees from Guantánamo Bay, he says, "is a whole different ball of wax." At community meetings in recent months, King says he has made the point to skeptics that terrorists have long been housed at U.S. prisons, and "you can't recite one terrorist attack by people trying to get out." He says he has received assurances from federal officials that should detainees be brought to Standish, no land near the prison would be seized to expand the facility. But the prison would largely be managed by military personnel, and it's unclear how many local residents would be hired.

Still, King wants whatever business his town can get. With the number of empty homes in Standish rising, when the prison closes, he says, "it's going to snowball." Says King, after returning home from his teaching job one recent evening: "The No. 1 option is to keep the prison open. It doesn't really matter who pays the bills."