LANSING – Private prison operator GEO Group announced Thursday it plans to reopen the former youth prison near Baldwin, in Lake County, after winning a federal government contract to house non-U.S. citizen criminal aliens.
The Florida-based company announced it won two new 10-year contracts to house “non-U.S. citizen criminal aliens,” and will reopen the 1,800-bed North Lake Correctional Facility as part of its actions to fulfill those contracts.
“We’re pleased to have been able to strengthen our long-standing partnership with the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) with this important contract award,” George Zoley, GEO’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a news release.
The prison is expected to reopen late this year and employ about 300 workers, Pablo Paez, GEO’s executive vice president, told the Free Press in an email.
The prison near Baldwin opened as a private youth prison in 1998 under then-Gov. John Engler, a Republican. Known as the “punk prison,” it closed in 2005, under former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, amid reports that it was too costly to run and neglected the health and educational needs of its young inmates. Later, it briefly housed inmates from California, with restrictions in place on the security levels of the inmates, but closed in 2011.
“It’s great news,” Lake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Howard Lodholtz told the Free Press on Thursday.
The county in the northwest Lower Peninsula has been through tough economic times and “that’s going to help,” he said.
Paez said the prison will house low-security prisoners serving federal criminal convictions. The prison will hire corrections officers, nurses and other medical staff, food service and maintenance workers, and administrative staff, he said.
There was no immediate word on exactly when the prison would reopen.
The Legislature approved a bill in 2015 that would allow GEO to house prisoners of any security classification at the prison. Previously, the highest-security prisoners were off limits.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February nixed plans for a proposed $35-million immigration detention center in Ionia, citing concerns about immigrant parents being separated from their children.
But there were at least two key differences between that proposal and the plans for Baldwin. First, Ionia involved the sale of state land to use a former state prison. Secondly, the Ionia proposal was for civil detention pending immigration hearings. The Baldwin prison, according to the company, will house immigrants convicted of criminal offenses.
A Whitmer spokeswoman declined comment.
The Michigan Department of Corrections was not aware of the plans and has no jurisdiction over privately owned prisons, spokesman Chris Gautz said.
Department Director Heidi Washington “opposes the idea of privatizing state prisons as she believes incarceration is a core function of government,” Gautz said.