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Showdown Emerges On Prison Closures In Corrections Budget

A major disagreement has developed on the Department of Corrections budget with the chief senator on the topic backing a 2016-17 fiscal year budget proposal that would close two prisons and call for the department to lease and operate a privately owned prison in Baldwin.

Department officials have made clear they oppose the closure of facilities. The department and Sen. John Proos (R-St. Joseph), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Corrections Subcommittee, have widely diverging assessments of available bed space in the state's prisons.

The budget also provides none of the $17.34 million Governor Rick Snyder recommended for a new Hepatitis C drug that can cure some strains of the disease, which is a major problem in prisons.

With the unanimous vote of the subcommittee to send the bill (SB 785) to the full Appropriations committee, all 32 appropriations bills for departments and major budget areas have emerged from House and Senate subcommittees, with several already on the Senate floor. Along the way, some disagreements have formed as usual between Mr. Snyder's proposal and legislators, but nothing on the order of the Senate subcommittee's budget for Corrections.

The prison closures (the bill does not specify which ones) would save $46.97 million.

According to the Senate Fiscal Agency, it would cost the state $5 million to lease the North Lake Correctional Facility, owned by The Geo Group, Incorporated. The facility is now run by Geo and houses prisoners from Vermont. When it first opened in 1999, the state used it as its Youth Correctional Facility to house young convicted felons sentenced to prison with the private company running the facility.

The number of such offenders never matched projections and the state ended its lease, leading to the prison closing. The facility reopened in 2015 to house Vermont inmates.
Under the Senate bill, the Department of Corrections would staff and operate the prison at a projected cost of $26.6 million.

Of the $15 million that would be saved from closing the two prisons and leasing the Baldwin prison, $14 million would then be re-invested into infrastructure improvements and repairs in the state's prisons.
Mr. Proos said the maintenance needs at the state's prisons are substantial. Closing two prisons and using a facility with few such needs helps reduce the areas needing attention, he said.

The department has warned against closing a prison now because officials want to see if the declining population pattern holds. Closing a facility, only to have to reopen it because of a later population increase, would cause major problems.

But Mr. Proos said the space is available. He said there are 3,352 beds available now for prisoners. Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz said the number of general population beds is 1,000. Mr. Proos said the difference is in the definition what type of bed is available.

He scoffed at concerns about wanting to see more information on the long-term prison population trend.
"I don't think it's a risk given today's numbers and the huge number of available beds by October 1st of this year," he said. "I think it's absolutely critical that we continue to invest in criminal justice programming that decreases the prison population in the long run. So at the same time we're closing a facility, we're investing in criminal justice reforms that will lead towards better outcomes for parolees and probationers and will help to close the revolving door that we have when over half our prison population are failed parolees or failed probationers who come back into our prison system."

Corrections Director Heidi Washington said in a statement that the department has discussed in recent months matching capacity to prison population because its efforts to reduce the prison population have been working. The department has taken several housing units offline this year, "feeling that was the best course currently as we continue to monitor our population trends."

Ms. Washington said the department would take the Senate plan "under advisement" and would work with the Legislature.

"We will work with our partners in the House, Senate and the governor's office on the final outcome," she said. "This is one step in the process, and remains a plan solely offered by a Senate subcommittee, which did not make any recommendations for which facilities should close."

Mr. Proos said legislators have spoken with Geo about the facility, and Geo offered to lease the facility to the state. There are currently 670 Vermont inmates there with a total bed capacity of 1,700.

"If we look at all the deferred maintenance costs and the costs the department has on an annual basis to keep these facilities up and running, I think it has to be looked at comprehensively as to whether or not there is a return on investment of millions of taxpayer dollars to keep up sometimes very aged and old and sometimes not very state of the art facilities," he said of the rationale for turning to the privately owned prison.

Geo officials said the state could assume the contract Geo has with Vermont and the state could instead receive the $5 million annually that Vermont now pays for the housing of those prisoners, Mr. Proos said.
But Mr. Gautz questioned the accuracy of the $5 million figure to lease the facility, saying the department has had no conversations with Geo. Further, he said the department would oppose comingling Michigan and Vermont inmates.

"If this is something the Legislature wants us to do, the company would have to move out any out-of-state prisoners they have there," he said.

In another major change, the Senate budget did not include $17.34 million Mr. Snyder recommended for a new specialty drug that can cure some strains of Hepatitis C.

Mr. Proos said the supplemental funding for the 2015-16 fiscal year already signed into law will clear the backlog of prisoners in Stage 3 or 4 of the disease and makes the increase unnecessary. Ongoing existing funding of $4 million will suffice, he said.

Mr. Gautz disagreed. He said there will still be more than 300 prisoners on the backlog list once the department exhausts the supplemental funding.

As a result of closing two facilities, the Senate budget spends $1 million less for a Corrections Officer Academy than Mr. Snyder recommended. As a result, 310 new officers would graduate instead of 350.

Some $5 million that Mr. Snyder recommended in savings from defunding currently unused housing units would instead be spent to use those facilities as a result of the prison closures.

The Senate subcommittee also reduced $3 million from prisoner health care services to reflect the declining prison population and claimed $5.1 million in savings from a negotiated prescription drug purchase program used by the department's prison health care provider.

The subcommittee's budget would move some medical procedures (chemotherapy, ultrasound, liver biopsies and others) in-house for a savings of $2.4 million. It also provided a smaller increase than Mr. Snyder recommended for mental health programming, spending about $900,000 less.

An increase of $6.8 million Mr. Snyder recommended for new prisoner re-entry services was not included in the subcommittee's budget, nor was Mr. Snyder's recommendation of $750,000 for a new program targeting probation violators with a history of reoffending.

With those savings, the subcommittee instead approved a $13.5 million increase in programs to reduce recidivism and incarceration rates among probationers and parolees, a new $3 million program create an incentive for Corrections officials implementing procedures that reduce parole and probation revocation, $3 million for the vocational village initiative and $500,000 to keep the Goodwill Flip the Script program, though that is a reduction from the current $2 million.

The subcommittee's budget is $2.02 billion ($1.969 billion General Fund), a 3 percent increase from the current year (3.4 percent increase General Fund) and $10 million less than what Mr. Snyder recommended in General Fund.