Private prison wins federal contract to house immigrants in Michigan

By: - May 2, 2019 7:06 pm

A private prison company plans to reopen a Northern Michigan prison where it will house people apprehended over immigration and other federal offenses, GEO Group announced Thursday.

The Florida-based company said in a press release that it plans to revive its private, 1,800-bed North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin after winning a contract from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

GEO Group is expected to earn $37 million a year from the federal contract to incarcerate “non-U.S. citizen criminal aliens” through a federal provision unofficially referred to as the “Criminal Alien Requirement,” which allows the federal government to house undocumented immigrants who violated federal law in private prisons, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We’re pleased to have been able to strengthen our long-standing partnership with the [Bureau of Prisons] with this important contract award,” GEO Group’s chair and CEO George Zoley said in a statement. “Our company-owned North Lake Correctional Facility and the Reeves County Detention Centers will play an important role in helping the agency meet its long-term need for high quality, cost-effective services that comply with the BOP’s mandated standards.”

North Lake Correctional Facility opened as a youth prison in 1999 under Republican former Gov. John Engler. It closed under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Democratic administration as state audits found numerous problems associated with the cost of running the facility that left it short-staffed as it dealt with frequent assaults.

Church school where No Detention Centers in Michigan held a meeting following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to nix a state land sale to Immigration Centers of America | Michael Gerstein

GEO Group announced the reopening of its private prison just three months after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, shut down efforts from another company to build a private immigrant detention facility on state land in Ionia, as the Michigan Advance first reported. The governor was concerned about the facility housing those impacted by the President Trump administration’s family separation policy.

A spokeswoman for Whitmer, Tiffany Brown, declined to comment on the news.

“The MDOC has no jurisdiction or supervision over such an arrangement between the [Federal Bureau of Prisons] and a private facility,” Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), wrote in an email to the Advance.

“I would also reiterate the fact that the state of Michigan does not operate any private prisons and [Director Heidi] Washington opposes the idea of privatizing state prisons as she believes incarceration is a core function of government,” he continued. “The fact that a private prison will soon operate separately inside the state sometimes confuses people and they think that we must run it, which we do not.”

Gretchen Whitmer | Ken Coleman

The ACLU has frequently opposed private prisons, which the group says often fail to meet “basic standards of health, safety and human decency.” A staff attorney from the ACLU of Michigan did not immediately return a call from the Advance seeking comment.

GEO Group said in its release that it offers “high-quality services in safe, secure and humane residential environments.”

But GEO Group has a track record of problems in facilities, including a Florida immigrant detention center.

An unannounced 2018 visit from Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General found nooses made from bedsheets in 15 of 20 cells in one Florida facility, NPR reported. Despite a detainee suicide a year before that, guards still hadn’t noticed. The federal report also showed the company unnecessarily placed detainees in solitary confinement and handcuffs.

A February report from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra found similar issues at facilities in California, with civil detainees sometimes confined to cells for 22 hours a day, NPR also reported.

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.