Lansing Politicians Now Pushing
to Let Private Firms Hire Prisoners
at Less Than Minimum Wage
Lansing: Todd Cook, director of We Are the People Michigan, said taxpayers won a major victory when House and Senate conferees removed language from the Department of Corrections budget that would have closed Michigan’s Ionia Reformatory and opened the door for the controversial GEO Group, Inc. to return to Michigan.
“Hundreds of activists from around the state made a real difference,” said Cook. “Members of our coalition told their legislators loud and clear: It makes no sense to eliminate good-paying public jobs just to bring in a private prison company that has a documented record of mistreating inmates. Especially after Michigan’s Auditor General found that GEO Group’s facility cost taxpayers millions of dollars in cost overruns when compared to state-run prisons.”
“But you can’t take your eyes off these guys for a second,” said Cook. “There’s still a provision in the budget which could allow privatizing 1,750 prison beds, and the GEO Group could wind up as the contractor. Lansing politicians are also pushing another outrageous scheme: A bill that would let private companies hire prison labor at less than minimum wage, so they can bid against the state of Michigan for food service, prison stores and other contracts.”
HB 5658, sponsored by Rep. Joe Haveman (R-Holland), chair of the House Appropriations Corrections Subcommittee, is scheduled for a hearing today in the House Judiciary Committee. It would exempt inmates assigned to “production of goods and services” within a corrections facility from receiving the minimum or prevailing wage – even if the inmates were working for a private firm.
“Rep. Haveman must think nobody’s watching,” said Cook. “But we are – the same way we put the spotlight on the pay-to-play deal Lansing politicians tried to deliver for the GEO Group.”
For several months, the Florida-based GEO Group has been lobbying the Michigan legislature, hoping for a deal to re-open a shuttered facility in Baldwin. The state ended its contract with GEO in 2006, after a Michigan Auditor General’s report found GEO’s private Baldwin facility was more expensive than state-run prisons, costing taxpayers as much as $7.5 million a year.
More recently, a federal judge described the GEO Group’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi as a “cesspool.” A March, 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Justice documents horrific conditions in the facility, including “sexual misconduct… among the worst we have seen in any facility anywhere in the nation.”
In February, We Are the People, Michigan shed light on GEO’s pay-to-play strategy, reporting that Cloid Shuler, the company’s vice president of Business Development, made an out-of-state contribution to Rep. John Bumstead (R-Newaygo). Days later, Bumstead introduced HB 5174, which would have allowed the company to re-open the closed Baldwin prison (which is in his district.)
Earlier this month, We Are the People filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Corrections, asking for any and all communications about the GEO Group. The coalition also circulated the U.S. Department of Justice’s scathing report about GEO’s Mississippi facility to citizens, legislators, policy makers and journalists.
HB 5174 never came up for a vote. On Tuesday May 29, the Michigan Information and Research Service (MIRS) reported that a House-Senate budget panel “moved out a conference report that doesn’t include language that could have reopened a Baldwin prison with a private operator.”
“Michigan citizens won a major victory by bringing a back-room deal out into the open,” said Cook. “Now we’re going to keep an eye on low-wage prison labor, and on any attempt to bring the discredited GEO Group back into our state.”
We Are the People is a statewide coalition of students, seniors and workers fighting to protect Michigan’s middle class families.