Baraga prison sits idle

Michigan State Roundup

Published April 1, 1992  | April 1992 issue

About two years ago, two maximum security prisons and four prison camps were built in the Upper Peninsula (UP) offering the promise of jobs for local communities. Today one of those prisons—in Baraga County—has yet to open and may sit idle until July 1993.

The delay is caused by utility deficiencies, say state Department of Corrections officials, and the prison won't open until they are corrected. At the same time, Michigan is in a budget crunch, resulting in state employee layoffs and delays in opening new downstate correctional facilities.

Baraga County has threatened to sue the state if the 440-bed maximum security prison doesn't open soon and if the state fails to give at least 60 percent of the estimated 430 jobs to local residents. While the state says it made no guarantees on the number of local residents hired, one of the selling points for locating prisons in the UP was that a majority of new jobs would be filled by local residents.

Three solutions to the stalemate have been proposed:

  • Baraga has applied to the state and federal governments for funding assistance to solve the utility problems;
  • state and federal officials are talking about turning the prison into a federal facility; and
  • the facility could be privatized.

In February the Keweenaw Bay Tribal Council offered to purchase the prison. The tribal council would contract with the state and hire an Albuquerque, N.M., management company to operate the facility. The Native American-owned company already manages 4,000 prison beds throughout the Southwest. Although the proposal was presented informally, the governor will likely consider it., says Dave Svanda, the governor's UP representative.

"The governor has expressed an interest in privatizing some state enterprises," says James Schutte of the tribal council. "And the tribal council is always looking for ways to diversify and provide employment for tribal members." If the tribe is accurate that it can save the state up to $10 per day in operating costs, the proposal might bear some merit, Svanda says.

Privatizing the prison might be preferable to operating it as a federal penitentiary because local people would fill most of the jobs. On the other hand, federal prison employees would be drawn from the Civil Service National Registry, application to which was frozen as of mid- February.

Although March 1991 statistics show only 1.7 percent of wage and salary employment in the UP attributable to major correctional facilities, Svanda says prison employment has brought some stable, relatively high-paying jobs to the UP that "trickle through the local economies."

Kathy Cobb