3 arrested outside Michigan immigrant prison on opening day

Oct 1, 2019

Update: The story has been updated to include GEO Group's response.

In an early morning stand-off, three protesters were arrested as they tried to block employees from entering a prison set to open on Tuesday that will hold immigrants convicted of crimes. 

At around 6 a.m., about a dozen protesters gathered outside the front entrance to the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin, MI holding posters with pictures of immigrant children and chanting “close the camps.” 

The group that organized the protest is called Occupy ICE Detroit. 

North Lake will begin housing criminally-convicted non-U.S. citizens as early as Tuesday. Those held at the facility are not families who crossed the border, but rather those who were arrested for criminal activity in the United States.

Prisoners held at this GEO Group prison are those who committed a crime — unlike those being held in detention centers near the U.S. and Mexico border while their asylum claims are being processed. Although some of the prisoners are in the U.S. illegally, some of them have green cards and broke the law while United States.

Recent data from Bureau of Prisons shows the majority of prisoners are held for drug offenses and immigration-related crimes, which can include crossing the border illegally a second time. 

Adam Nash from Ann Arbor says he made the early morning trip to send a message to the GEO executives that people are watching how they treat the immigrant prisoners.

“The entire purpose of this facility is to extract profit from detaining people,” he says. “Everyone who is going to be housed in the facility… are arrested for low-level crimes. And after serving months or years they’re all set to be deported anyway. The entire point of this is to cause suffering and profit off of it.”

Several times, Nash shouted “turn around, go home” and “quit your jobs” at the cars pulling into the facility’s parking lot, but he says he’s sympathetic to the prison workers.

“I know that Lake County and Baldwin specifically are really in need of jobs,” he says. “And I absolutely support that struggle."

He adds that resources should be used to create jobs that aren't tied to a prison.

It's not clear, however, if some protesters understood the North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin is an immigrant prison, not a detention center.

Emily Jones from Detroit says she and her children made a number of the signs. She says her stepmother was a refugee to the U.S. Jones worries that other people seeking a better life are being mistreated.

“These are innocent people,” she says. “They have not committed violent crimes. They want to escape crime. They’re doing what any good parent would do.”

Other protesters who drove from the metro Detroit area say they want to make it inconvenient for the prison to operate and make people in the community rethink how valuable the prison is. They also say they want to be there as a show of support for the immigrant prisoners if any arrive at the facility Tuesday.

GEO Group says they can begin accepting prisoners Tuesday, but they won’t disclose when inmates are arriving for security reasons. In response to the protesters' claims, GEO wrote in an email statement they are concerned about the crisis at the Southern border. 

"We have been a trusted service provider to the federal government for over three decades, under Democratic and Republican Administrations, and in that time, we have never played a role in setting policy, nor have we ever advocated for or against immigration enforcement policies. We do not manage any shelters or facilities housing unaccompanied minors, nor do we manage any border patrol holding facilities," a GEO spokesperson wrote.

North Lake is one of 12 other Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons across the country that house non-citizens convicted of felonies. The remote prison is located just outside of popular recreation town of Baldwin and surrounded on three sides by state and national forests. 

At the site, two GEO guards coordinated arriving employee vehicles and others stood by the gate. Half a dozen to a dozen police officers were there throughout the protest. Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin says the protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct. 

“They were told at least three times that they can’t block traffic coming into the facility because this is a private property,” he says. “Everyone has the right to protest but they have to be peaceful with it. And if they break the law, they’re going to end up suffering the penalty unfortunately.”

Two lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild were nearby the protesters. They were observing the scene and there to protect protesters rights for free speech and to assemble. 

Nicholas Klaus of Interlochen is with the guild and says he watched for unlawful behavior from the police and prison staff.

“One common thing for instance is telling people that they have to keep moving. You see that a lot in metro Detroit,” he says. “And the police say you can’t stand there — you have to move, you have to keep walking. And that’s just not true. We don’t intervene in that instance, but we’ll note it, we’ll observe it and bear witness to it.”

Occupy ICE Detroit had also protested outside Prudential headquarters in Troy in August, trying to persuade the company to divest from GEO Group. As of Monday evening, Forbes published a report that all of GEO Group’s bank partners say they will stop supporting the company.

Local organizers from the Lake County Democratic Party are also holding a protest nearby the prison in the afternoon.

Correction: A previous version said a majority people serving sentences at North Lake Correctional Facility are incarcerated for petty drug crimes. IPR has been unable to confirm the make up of small drug charges versus major drug trafficking charges.