The state of Michigan would be prohibited from housing its inmates in private prisons under a bill filed by state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.
Irwin told The Center Square that the private prison industry was inherently immoral because their financial incentive doesn’t match with the rehabilitation goal of the criminal justice system.
Irwin said that Michigan’s prison population has declined from a high of about 53,000 to around 38,000, and he is pushing to continue that trend through criminal justice reform.
Irwin pointed to substance abuse of crystal methamphetamine and opiates as fueling incarceration rates, especially among women in rural areas.
“I think that ending the War on Drugs is the biggest thing we could do to continue driving down our prison expenditures and continue to progress toward treating people like human beings and not locking them up for a private, victimless behavior,” Irwin said.
Michigan’s only private prison, North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, won a 10-year federal contract earlier this year to house people who immigrated illegally to the United States.
Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, told The Center Square that the American private prison industry exists only because public prisons, jails and detention centers “don’t physically have enough space to lock up all the people we want to lock up.”
Friedmann cited a 2016 “In the Public Interest” report that suggested, in general, private prisons have higher recidivism rates than public prisons because of a profit motive. That translates to less experienced employees and a higher staff turnover rate, he said, which means you have less stability compared to public prisons.
Friedmann said that some private prisons avoid effective methods to break addiction such as Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT), the standard of care outside prisons and jails because some of those facilities don’t like to use narcotic medication such as methadone.
Throwing drug addicts in prison won’t help them unless they first address their medical issues, he added.
Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, told Mlive in 2015 that they could create about 150 jobs in Baldwin’s private prison if they incarcerated high-security inmates from other states.
"By removing this restriction, the prison would easily become the largest employer in Lake County, the poorest county in the state of Michigan.”
Bumstead didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Hillsdale College Director of Economics Gary Wolfram told The Center Square that governments must measure services they have privatized.
“If you hire a contractor to work on a rental house you own, you’re going to check up on it,” Wolfram said.
Alexander (Sasha) Volokh, a law professor at Emory University in Athens, Ga., told The Center Square that private prisons can cost between 3 percent and 15 percent less than public prisons, but it’s hard to compare costs because of accounting methods and other factors.
Volokh cited his article “Prison Accountability and Performance Measures” in which he asserted there should be a comparative analysis of private and public prisons because the little research done has been inconclusive.
“I think when people are making these decisions, they’re not really based on sound research,” Volokh said. “If you did try to base it on sound research, it’ll be kind of depressing because you’d say, well, there’s just a lot we don’t know.”
Volokh’s article suggested changing private prison contracts to be contingent on results such as recidivism rates, in-prison violence and healthcare outcomes.
The bill follows the Michigan Joint Task Force that’s analyzing cheaper alternatives to incarceration as Wayne County builds a $533 million jail, according to Crain's Detroit Business, and Macomb County considers building a $371 million jail.
Michigan taxpayers in 2017 paid $478 million on county jails and other corrections costs representing 23 percent of county spending.