In less than two weeks, a prison housing immigrants will open in northern Michigan.
Private prison operator GEO Group won the contract from the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to hold inmates convicted of federal crimes at their North Lake Correctional Facility in Baldwin.
Critics say federal prisons outsourced to private companies have harmful practices. They claim the company is taking advantage of a desperate community.
But many residents there are in favor of the correctional facility.
The prison will hold legal and illegal immigrants convicted of low level crimes. Public records requests show that in other BOP managed immigrant prisons 53 percent of inmates were incarcerated for drug crime, 32 percent committed an immigration offense and 8 percent were imprisoned for a violent offense.
The BOP data shows immigrants serve an average of six years and then are deported.
A prison in Baldwin
The segragated immigrant prison is located just outside the village of Baldwin. It’s surrounded by state and national forests. The village has a population of about 1,200. It’s a popular recreation town, 30 miles east of Ludington.
Baldwin is in Lake County and has a 6.9 percent unemployment rate and 60 percent of its residents are on government subsidies.
Still, Baldwin Village President Jim Truxton thinks the area is about to turn around.
On an overcast day, he stands outside the prison. A few months ago Truxton toured the facility. He’s been a big supporter of GEO Group since the prison first opened in 1998. He owns stock in the company.
“I’ve lived in dormitories that didn’t look as nice as this facility,” Truxton says.
GEO Group originally built the corrections facility hold juvenile offenders in Michigan. But later the state shut it down in 2005.
GEO housed Vermont and California prisoners there for short stints, but it’s been empty for three years. That changed in May when the U.S. government awarded GEO Group a 10 year contract to hold up to 1,800 “criminal alien” prisoners. GEO says the agreement will net the company $37 million annually.
Truxton says he wrote several letters of recommendation for job applicants and knows at least a dozen local people who got jobs at the prison.
“Husband and wife team friends of mine — she was an aid at the school, he worked at one of the local pizza places — and they’re both working here now, at starting wages of $17 an hour. Seventeen dollars an hour, 40 hours a week, it’s about $34,000 a year plus benefits,” he says.
GEO Group says annual salaries at the facility are between approximately $35,000 and $76,000.
The company renovated the local sewage treatment plant and has provided millions over the years in property taxes.
Truxton says the prison operator is well respected locally, even as people lost their jobs when the company’s past contracts ended unexpectedly.
“People get to stay in the area they love,” he says. “They get to stay close to family and friends. One of our biggest issues in this county for several decades now is that the kids all leave because they don’t think there’s an economic future for them here.”
GEO Group did not make anyone available for an interview. Truxton says recently hired employees were also told not to speak with reporters.
On the sidewalks in downtown Baldwin half a dozen people interviewed were in favor of a prison that would supply well paying jobs.
At the Village Restaurant, the Chair of the Lake County Democratic Party Mary Minnick says when she first heard the prison would be open for at least 10 years, she was excited.
“I originally put on our Lake County Democrat Party page that they were hiring,” she says. “This was good for the community. This is what we need, right?”
But she says she soured on the prison after hearing most of the 300 hires wouldn’t go to locals.
In an email, GEO Group says they’ve brought on 69 residents that currently live in Lake County. They say the remaining 200 plus employees commute from nearby or are in the process of moving closer.
Problems at all-foreign prisons
Federal prisons that house only immigrants have been criticized in other states for their conditions.
New York University Law Professor Emma Kaufman spent months doing interviews and requesting public documents on these prisons. She found they provide fewer medical and rehabilitative services for inmates.
“From what we can tell there are higher rates of violence and self harm in these institutions,” Kaufman says. "Institutions that are transient, institutions that are really remote, institutions where there is lax security, all of those things can contribute to rates of violence.”
She says the prisons are all in rural areas which also brings a host of problems.
“So remoteness presents huge challenges in terms of access to courts, access to counsel, access to family,” Kaufman says. “I mean family visitation is probably the biggest concern about long distance.”
Meanwhile, the prison will officially open on Oct. 1. Minnick says she is organizing a protest across the street on the same day.