Prison closure will add to county jail costs — Casperson

TOM CASPERSON

MARENISCO TOWNSHIP — Upper Peninsula legislators are disappointed in a decision by the Michigan Department of Corrections to close the Ojibway Correctional Facility in Gogebic County.

The agency announced the closure Tuesday to meet a cut of more than $19 million in the prison budget. State lawmakers had instructed the department to close an unspecified prison.

While some are hailing it as an indication of positive trends in law enforcement, state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, disagrees.

“This is a game of cups and ball, where the state is simply hiding the true costs of closing down prison facilities,” Casperson said. “Our county jail populations are ballooning because of these closures, causing a greater burden on county budgets that are already stretched thin. And that is unacceptable. We need to recognize the true costs of law enforcement in our state, and not simply pass on the burden to our local communities.”

In 2017, the state’s prison population dropped below 40,000 for the first time in more than 20 years, and in 2018 the state’s recidivism rate declined to its lowest-recorded level at 28.1 percent, according to MDOC Director Heidi Washington.

According to the Department of Corrections, the Ojibway Correctional Facility is scheduled to close Dec. 1. The roughly 800 inmates will be transported to other facilities around the state.

Casperson said he previously presented a plan to the Department of Corrections that would have saved the state money while at the same time ensuring local communities are not left to subsidize prison closures. The state’s contention that recidivism is at an all-time low is a false narrative, he said.

“It is especially frustrating that the significant consequences for the Western U.P. were not considered, especially after this community accepted this responsibility from the state at a time others communities shunned having a prison,” Casperson said. “There were other options available to the state that would have offered the department cost savings that would not have devastated a local community.”

State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, said he voted against the recent state budget because it included a prison closing.

“This is bad news for the more than 200 employees who support their families thanks to the good jobs that Ojibway Correctional Facility provides for people across the Western U.P.,” Dianda said. “Some of these workers drive from surrounding towns and counties, but now the closest facility they might be able to transfer to would be more than 100 miles away.”

Ojibway originally opened as a prison camp in 1971. The prison employs 203 people, including 116 corrections officers, with about 20 of the employees coming from Wisconsin, according to department spokesman Chris Gautz.

There are no immediate plans for possible reuse of the facility.

Ken Summers of L’Anse, a Democratic state House candidate in the 110th District, suggested the facility be transitioned to assist with mental health and substance abuse issues.

U.P. legislators are urging the state to assist both the displaced the workers and the region’s economy.

“If this decision is left to stand, I am asking that the state join with us in the immediate days ahead to find ways to offer some jobs assistance to the already struggling economy in the Western U.P. to ensure the community can survive,” Casperson said.

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