Private prisons a risky gamble

Forum: Private prisons a risky gamble

By Kevin McDaniel | March 9, 2012 | Record Eagle

Legislators in Lansing are currently pushing through bills that would allow the GEO Group Inc. to house state prison inmates at a private prison in Baldwin in Lake County. What they’re not talking about, however, is that the state has already gone down this path and learned its lesson. Now the Legislature is moving to waste even more taxpayer dollars to learn it again.

GEO operated the facility from 1998 until 2005 to house Michigan’s youth offenders. Why did it close? Because funding for the contract was canceled when the facility proved to be more costly to run than 33 of the 37 other state-run facilities. 

Further, an Auditor General’s report found the facility did not ensure required shakedowns and that cell searches were performed or that new employee and in-service training hours were met, among others.

I worked at the private prison from the day it opened until the day it closed, starting as a correctional officer and working my way up. As a lieutenant I screened job applicants and would routinely see candidates I recommended for rejection hired as corrections officers nonetheless.

We held nearly 30 training academies in those six years and yet we were still short staffed because so many would call in or quit. When you have a constant rotation in of new officers, most with little experience, it creates an unsettled environment and the risk of officers being hurt or violent incidents increases accordingly.

The difference between a state-run prison and a private-run facility is the difference between a secure, “well-oiled” operation and a perpetual “start-up.”

Since 2005, GEO has run the facility with a skeleton crew and spent millions of dollars tripling the size of the facility. Because the out-of-state contracts they sought never materialized, GEO is seeking to re-populate the prison with in-state inmates, despite Michigan’s prisoner population being the lowest since 1998. The legislative bills look more to me like a bailout to GEO for the money they put into the private prison.

Since 2005 I’ve been a state corrections officer, working at the Pugsley Correctional Facility near Traverse City. The Michigan Corrections Organization (MCO), to which I now belong, and the State Employee Union Coalition (MCO, SEIU, UAW, AFSCME, and MSEA) recently released an examination of privatization, “Pitfalls and Promises: The Real Risks to Residents and Taxpayers of Privatizing Prisons and Prison Services in Michigan,” which is available at http://www.mco-seiu.org/2012/02/14/prison-privatization-report.

This report backs up with real examples the problems I experienced working inside the private prison.

Michigan doesn’t need more prison space, so as a taxpayer I question why the Legislature is rushing to give more profits to a corporation that already failed here.

A better way to find savings, while protecting the safety and security of our corrections system, is to have employees work with the state to find ways to cut costs, which is what we’ve been doing successfully and want to keep doing.

About the author: Kevin McDaniel started working in law enforcement in 1989 as a dispatch/corrections officer with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department. He left the Lake County Sheriff’s Department to work for the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility. In 2005, McDaniel started working as a corrections officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections at the Pugsley Correctional Facility near Kingsley.

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