Michigan’s prison industrial complex

jailcellI’ve been thinking about Michigan prisons quite a bit lately. It seems as though, all of a sudden, the subject is everywhere… The University of Michigan’s annual exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners opened today. There’s an article on the Daily Kos this evening about how, under Governor Snyder’s Emergency Financial Manager plan, non-elected officials could make the decision to privatize our jails. And, as I mentioned in my last post, prisons came up a few times in last night’s community forum with State Senator Rebekah Warren. For those of you that didn’t watch the video clips attached to my last post, here’s what Warren said concerning prisons during last night’s Q&A.

WARREN: (Reading a question submitted by a member of the audience) “Please elaborate on the $1.9 billion spent on prisons vs. the $1.2 billion on higher ed. Could this be true? It sounds outrageous.”

(Responding) It’s absolutely true. Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of just four states in the nation that spend more on corrections than they do on higher education…

All of our corrections funding comes out of our general fund – our most flexible dollars – that could go to any program that we think is important. It doesn’t come in a silo from Washington, that has to go to one specific program or another. Corrections now eats up almost a whole quarter of our entire general fund budget. Michigan spends way more on corrections than most of our other Great Lakes States neighbors do. We put people in prison for longer sentences, for the same crimes. Michigan has interpreted truth in sentencing to mean that you are not eligible for parole until you have hit 100% of your minimum sentence, whereas under federal law, and in many other states, it’s 85% – if you’ve done the coursework that you’re supposed to do, whether it’s anger management, or substance abuse counselling, or whatever it is that you need to do to be a model prisoner – you could be considered for parole at 85% of your sentence. What we find in Michigan is, because of some challenges in the parole system, most of our prisoners are serving 120% of their minimum required sentence. And, so, that cost for us, depending on what facility they’re in, is between $35,000 and $50,000 per year, per prisoner.

There are a lot of recommendations that have come to the legislature that say, we need to do away with some of our mandatory minimum sentences that we instituted in the ’90s, when we got ‘tough on crime’ like a lot of other folks… We locked up first time drug offenders that were pretty small offenders, even if they were non-violent. We locked them away for life in prison, or certain mandatory length sentences… We have to decide who it is that we’re really afraid of. Public safety has to be paramount – it has to be the number one thing we look at when we talk about corrections funding – but for the folks we’re just mad at, that weren’t violent offenders, that really needed treatment more than they needed prison, we have a lot of alternatives now in community corrections and in tether technology. We’ve gotten so advanced in tether technology that we could be getting folks out of our corrections system, and have them back in the community, hopefully working, and paying restitution, if that’s what they’ve been ordered to do, and taking care of their family, and their child support obligations if they have them, and really becoming part of society, instead of us spending $50,000 a year to keep them in prison.

There are a lot of reputable organizations that have said there are at least $400 or $500 million in corrections reform that would really be relatively easy. And that’s the kind of Michigan that I want to see, where we’re smart on corrections policy, and not just tough on crime… and that we’re protecting public safety, but that we’re doing in such a way that we’re not spending more on corrections than we are on higher education…

So, who out there thinks that, if for-profit corporations came in to run our prisons, they’d aggressively move to decrease the length of sentences served, saving Michigan’s tax payers hundreds of millions of dollars?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Oh, while I’ve got your attention, I wanted to mention that the Daily Kos piece I linked to above not only touches on the possibility that Michigan’s emergency financial managers could privatize our jails and police forces (buy that Blackwater stock), but also gets into a bit of background on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – the corporate front group that many seem to think is supplying the Snyder administration with its ideas. Here’s a clip.

1. State legislators who pay $50 per year in dues and in exchange get junkets to luxury resorts, free or heavily subsidized vacations for their families, and other fringe benefits including free child-care and medical tests, Broadway shows, and dinners at expensive restaurants. ALEC’s membership includes 2,400 state legislators, which is over 30% of all state lawmakers in the country.

2. Over 300 corporate sponsors who pay up to $50,000 per year in dues plus up to $5,000 to sit on industry-specific task forces in their areas of interest such as energy, healthcare, telecommunications and taxes. The task forces write and approve the model legislation that conforms to the business interests of their corporate members. Tax records indicate that corporations collectively pay as much as $6 million a year. The corporate executives and their lobbyists then get substantial face time with the state legislators at ALEC’s retreats and other events.

According to its website, the corporate funders currently on ALEC’s Private Enterprise board include Koch Industries, Altria, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKlein, Pfizer, Reynolds American Inc. (the parent company of cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds), Energy Future Holdings, Peabody Energy, PhRMA, AT&T, UPS, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and State Farm Insurance…

What could possibly go wrong?

In all seriousness, why aren’t the Michigan Democrats pushing an alternative budget that focuses on the closing of corporate tax loopholes, prison reform, and the passage of a graduated, progressive income tax? I’ve got to think that a majority of Michiganders would prefer that to increasing taxes on the elderly and the working poor.

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  1. Savings Club
    Posted March 22, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    In the interest of balancing budgets and saving tax payers money, Snyder and others should require a five percent reduction in the pay of every private worker who is given state contracts as well as insuring that workers pay for at least 20 percent of health care.

    It’d be pretty simple to institute. Simply show all your workers (top down) are being paid at least five percent less than they were last year if you want to compete for government projects.

  2. JSam
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    Excellent question, Mark. I suspect part of the strategy is to let Snyder hang himself first. His plan is such a good target right now, they may not want to throw another target out there for ALEC to take pot shots at. Just a thought.

  3. JSam
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Ohio is not only privatizing but selling FIVE prisons in it’s already overcrowded and cruel penal system.
    They are making the inmates pay for electricity out of their state money (out of their $12 a month pay) which leaves them no money to buy food or soap or toothpaste toilet paper etc). Some of these guys are mentally ill-one prison has an entire building for the mentally challenged inmates – two with Downs syndrome. They have cut their meals (already mush) to $1.50 max cost.
    Michigan will be there soon as it’s all part of the marching orders from Koch and Company. It’s coming.

    There is occasional talk of sentence reform….but it won’t happen. This is an industry that corporate America wants badly – massive profits available.

    Note: the new director of prison named by Ohio’s governor? He was the head of a major corporation that runs private prisons.

  4. Knox
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    If only there were a way to to have a more seamless transition from charter schools to private prisons.

  5. dp in ypsi
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    @JSam: strategy? seriously?

    strategy defined: a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result

  6. Edward
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    What if we were to preemptively tether everyone living in high crime areas, so that we’d know where they are at all times? Just think of all the savings that could be had!

  7. dp in ypsi
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    @Edward: luckily, most folks already carry a GPS beacon in their pocket. Mine happens to be an iPhone, but almost any mobile phone will do.

  8. Kim
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    That we’re among the our states that spends more on its prisons than it does its universities is absolutely shocking. It’s an embarrassment. Snyder can give away millions to the business community and eliminate the MI business tax, but nothing will truly change at a deep level until we change that underlying dynamic.

    As for the Governor, I’d love to have him spend a day in our prison system.

  9. Glen S.
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    @ Kim

    Only *one* day?

  10. Natalie Holbrook
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    This is an ultra complex and political issue. As the public (and groups working on prison reform), we need to challenge the current discourse that relies on the rhetoric of locking up people and throwing away the key (this rhetoric becomes policy). Sentencing reform is one of the components to reducing the corrections budget, but another component is the fact that we have to not only reduce the number of prisoners but also the number of staff. Almost 77% of the corrections budget is spent on economics connected to staffing. We thought reduction of the prison population would make a difference in the nearly 2 billion dollar budget, but it has remained the same even though the prison population has been reduced by nearly 7000 people in the last three years. The MCO does have a lot of power in this state and staff have some perks that you should check out in the handouts I refer to below.

    Last week I participated in a great, public policy symposium, Finding the Path to a
    $1.5 Billion Corrections Budget: A Symposium for Policymakers and Stakeholders, put on by some excellent groups dedicated to analyzing and thinking about how to make recommendations that make sense for safely reducing corrections spending. You can download all of the handouts from the presentations on the Citizens Research Council of Michigan’s website at the following link http://corrections.crcmich.org/

    The sad thing about this symposium is that many legislators were invited and barely any attended. Why? When this is where the cuts can be made. I do believe policy changes can be made this year that will indeed impact next year’s (or 2013’s if this ends up really being a two year budget) budget.

    The synopsis of the event is below:
    “Finding the Path to a
    $1.5 Billion Corrections Budget
    A Symposium for Policymakers and Stakeholders

    On March 17, 2011, the Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public Spending (CAPPS) the Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) and the Center for Michigan co-sponsored a public policy symposium entitled “Finding the Path to a $1.5 Billion Corrections Budget”. The Michigan Department of Corrections appropriation is currently $2 billion. It consumes nearly 25 percent of the overall General Fund budget. The purpose of the symposium was to present attendees with a wealth of unbiased, non-partisan and factual information about how the MDOC appropriation is allocated, how it affects the overall state budget and what options exist for reducing it. The information was intended to serve as a foundation for forthcoming policy and budget discussions.

    The symposium, held at the Lansing Center, included presentations from the co-sponsoring organizations, budget experts, the business community and stakeholder groups. It was by invitation-only and did not include media. The following is the program with links to the materials provided.”

  11. gary
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    two words


  12. Posted March 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    two words


  13. Posted March 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    That was more than two words. That was eleven.

  14. Posted March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink


  15. Mr. X
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Natalie.

  16. Citizen Blogger
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I recall an hour-long interview during the campaign in which Michigan Radio’s Rick Pluta asked then-candidate Snyder for ideas about running government like a business. The example Snyder offered involved investing in mental health care, because it has a high ROI: a few dollars in mental health care investment avoids a big, long-term expense of hospitalization or prison.

    It’s this interview, and the exchange starts at about 1:30 mins in (of an hour-long piece) – in fact, Snyder offers the mental health bit as an example of how “right-sizing” government doesn’t always mean cutting: http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/michigan/news.newsmain?action=article&ARTICLE_ID=1707860

    Haven’t seen anything on Snyder’s mental health vs. prison budgets. I understand the Gov’s gotta have priorities, but I keep wondering when he’ll get to this one.

  17. Chairman Meow
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Snyder lives in a mansion nestled inside a gated community, replete with guard station. The white rich tend to lock themselves up for their own safety, and they tend to lock people of color up for the same reason. Oh, and for profit, too.

  18. Ez Marsay
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Let’s hope Snyder is paying attention.


    Good news: MI House failed to pass a repeal of the Domestic Partner Act. Repugs needed 7 Democrats to cross the line in the vote, and only 2 did. However: they’re trying it again this morning!


  19. Ted
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve got a question. If our prison population is already dropping, why are we spending more on prisons each year? And why aren’t we demanding that they cut, just like schools? Is it just because we’re terrified of convicts, or is it because they have a powerful union/lobby?

  20. Chairman Meow
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    My sense—hopefully it’s not complete sci-fi—is that Snyder understands that draconian cuts to social services + big knife to the throats of working class + vacuuming money from normal Michiganders and into non-MI corporate bag . . . . . . will eventually translate to increase demand for prison space. Especially in downtrodden urban sectors. If you’ve got no way to get or make money, crime becomes an only means to survival.

  21. Ez Marsay
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Heartwarming news in a dark time: (Rick O’)Kasich stands little chance of succeeding in stripping bargaining rights from OH workers:


  22. Jsam
    Posted March 24, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Politicians didn’t attend the symposium because they are afraid to anger their right wing constituents who just keep saying “lock them up”. They won’t look at prison reform or sentencing reform….not with a Republican majority.

    Prisons are living in the dark ages of dirty cement walls and nasty guards. Sorry, but it’s true.

    A lot of money could be saved with technology. Why do you need to pay someone to stand and look at each person’s ID badge every day? Why not use technology to ID them?
    Prisoner count? Count electronically.
    All ID-ing should be electronic not manual.

    Give prisoners a sport channel. You could get rid of a LOT of people who have to break up fights, stop cell phone smuggling, drugs etc that happen now…..because those folks are literally DYING of boredom. They have NOTHING to do other than their daily job. Therein begins the problems.
    Give them something to occupy their minds. The books they have are torn and have multiple pages missing – nothing to read. And the basic channels on tv….well we already know there’s nothing to watch.

    Another thing…. how much time is spent trying to catch inmates “getting drugs and cell phones.?” Try checking the guards when they enter. Bingo!

  23. Edward
    Posted March 28, 2011 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Here’s a new business idea. Selling ads in jails.


  24. Meta
    Posted April 21, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Snyder has picked Jackson County Sheriff Dan Heyns to head Michigan’s Department of Corrections.

    Heyns, a Republican, was a vocal opponent of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s actions to release more nonviolent prisoners eligible for parole.

    The Department of Corrections accounts for about a quarter of the state’s general fund budget, with 34 prison facilities with a population of 43,900 inmates. Heyns is expected to study ways the department can rein in spending while keeping the public safe.

    “Sheriff Heyns has exactly the type of skills we were looking for in a corrections director,” Snyder said in a statement. “His experience managing the sheriff’s department, operating a jail operation and his keen understanding of how local jurisdictions can work cooperatively with our state correctional facilities make him an excellent choice for director of corrections.”


2 Trackbacks

  1. […] for those of you who didn’t read my last post on prison reform, here’s a short quote from State Senator Rebekah Warren, who was speaking at a town hall […]

  2. […] only four states that spends more on corrections than it does on education. And, believe it or not, the amount spent on prisons is actually growing this year, even as school budgets are being slashed, successful schools are being shuttered, and class sizes […]

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