Legal News
State Fiscal Woes Padlock Much-Criticized Youth Prison
Psychiatric News
Volume 40 Number 21 page 2-38

Despite opposition from Republicans, Michigan's youth prison was closed last month when Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) announced the first budget bills for the 2005-06 fiscal year. The move helped trim a projected deficit of $770 million. The prison closing was one of the most hotly contested items in the budget.

"This costly facility is not needed and was originally constructed to house violent young offenders, but the need for this facility never materialized," the governor said.

Her office noted that the legislative auditor general said less-expensive beds can be used to house the teen offenders, saving the state $17.8 million a year.

Earlier this year the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service Inc. filed a lawsuit against State Department of Corrections Director Patricia Casuso, Michigan Youth Correction Facility Warden Frank Elo, and the GEO Group Inc., a Florida-based, prison-management company that owns and runs the state's private prison at Baldwin, claiming the prison was mismanaged.

After the state had given the company a 60-day notice that it was terminating the lease, the GEO Group made a last-minute offer to cut the cost of the state's $18.8 million four-year contract by at least $2 million a year, an indication of how profitable private prisons are. Now the state faces a lawsuit over the lease for the privately built facility, and prison supporters say the fight is not over.

The Michigan Youth Correctional Facility was built in 1999 under former Gov. John Engler (R), who promised good-paying jobs to residents in the poverty-stricken Lake County region; it was the state's first privately run, for-profit prison. Soon after it opened, parents of teenaged boys convicted as adults alleged that their children had suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuse at the maximum-security prison. Their allegations were backed up by a watchdog group.

"Even though we anticipated that the facility was to be closed regardless, we went ahead and filed the suit because [staff] were not providing the proper services to the kids," Tom Masseau, public policy specialist with the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, told Psychiatric News. The suit accused the prison of neglecting inmates' physical and mental health and failing to provide enough trained counselors for those suffering from mental illnesses and developmental disabilities.

Masseau said there was only one full-time social worker for 483 inmates. He added that low-level offenders were housed with convicted rapists and murderers. Many inmates were kept in isolation for days at a time without recreation and as punishment for minor offenses were limited to a few showers a week.

"Sixty-one suicide attempts were reported between October 2004 and March 2005," Masseau said. "This is a significant increase, because for all of 2003, there were only 18 suicide attempts," he added.

Masseau attributed the suicide attempts to the lack of proper treatment for inmates, many of whom suffered from mental illness and developmental disabilities. "Now that the facility is closed, we will be monitoring what happens to these kids to make sure that the state provides the appropriate services for them," he said.

The GEO Group said it will vigorously contest the allegations and questioned the plaintiffs' motivation and timing. It warned it will pursue and enforce any remedies under the law against the Michigan Advocacy and Protection Service.

Management and Budget Department spokesperson Bridget Medina had no immediate comment on the lease issue and what options the state was reviewing.

Many people in the mental health and human service communities agreed that it was time Michigan dissolved its relationship with the GEO Group, a worldwide operation that runs prisons in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

"I fully expected Gov. Granholm to end the contract, and that was sound public policy," Mark Reinstein, Ph.D., CEO, and president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, told Psychiatric News." The mental health and human service communities had serious concerns about the efficacy and performance of this facility."

Psychiatrist Michele Reid, M.D., medical director of the Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency and a corresponding member of APA's Council on Member and District Branch Relations, noted that the Mental Health Commission had received testimony from many families and deliberated extensively on mental health services to persons in correctional settings for both juveniles and adults.

"We are elated that the youth prison is closed. It's a scandal that it was ever opened and continued to be run in such a way that could do so much damage to so many children," Susan McParland, director of the Michigan Association for Children With Emotional Disorders, told Psychiatric News. "Our organization had urged that the Baldwin facility, or so-called `punk prison,' be closed.... There was no purpose for this facility. As advocates for kids, we know that detention in general does a lot of harm to children who have emotional disorders, and this facility was the `belly of the beast' so to speak."

State Sen. Michelle McManus (R), whose Lake Leelanau district includes the prison, claims the suit sucker-punched residents of a county that often leads the state in unemployment and poverty.

"Just when it seems things can't get any darker for residents of Lake County, the groups that are against the prison found one more stunt to pull," she said. "This suit was clearly timed for maximum political impact."

Republican legislators who favor privatization wanted the funding for the prison to continue and disputed the claims that adult prisons have enough beds to accommodate the youthful inmates who were shipped to adult prisons beginning October 1.

Corrections spokesperson Leo Lalonde said 320 prisoners would be transferred to the Thumb Correctional Facility, with others scattered throughout the system. Sexual assaults at juvenile prisons occur 10 times more often than at adult prisons, according to information released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in July. ▪

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