The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Future of Ojibway Correctional Facility remains uncertain

 

January 16, 2018

P.J. Glisson/Daily Globe

A SIGN ON THE corner of M-64 and Job Corps Road in Marenisco indicates the way to Ojibway Correctional Institute, whose fate remains in question because of declining prison populations.

By P.J. GLISSON

news@yourdailyglobe.com

Marenisco - According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, declining prison populations throughout the state have led to more than 20 prison facilities closing since 2005.

So, as state officials begin wrangling the details of their next annual budget, it's no wonder that residents of this region fear that Ojibway Correctional Facility in Marenisco could be the next one to hit the chopping block.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, does not believe it will happen.

In a Monday phone interview, Casperson stood by the optimism he expressed in a Dec. 14 letter to Richard Brackney, city manager of Wakefield.

"The Ojibway facility has and continues to operate with efficiency, providing necessary services for prisoners, as well as counseling and preparation for their post-prison integration and employment," wrote Casperson in a letter that brought smiles to the faces of Wakefield City Council members at their Jan. 8 meeting.

"Although it is true that Michigan's prisoner population is declining," continued Casperson's letter, "... if a prison closure should occur, Ojibway is not the one under consideration."

Casperson said Monday he received the reassurance from Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Corrections Subcommittee.

Nevertheless, that is little comfort to those people now employed by the prison. "We have never, ever been notified of what Sen. Casperson is saying," said Micki Sorensen, administrative assistant at Marenisco, on Friday. "That would relieve a lot of stress for over 200 employees."

Sorensen said the prison has not yet received any confirmation of whether Ojibway will remain safe. "We're here on pins and needles," she assured.

Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, confirmed what Sorensen said. "There's been no decision made at this point," he said Friday by phone, but he added such judgments tend to be made during this period of time, when budget recommendations are being formed.

As of now, said Gautz, "We only have 30 prisons." As for which facilities may be most vulnerable to closure, he said, "Lots of empty beds could be a factor."

MDOC's website states that OCF has a capacity for 1,180 inmates, whereas Sorensen said the prison now has just under 1,000.

As for what has led to fewer prisons in recent years, Gautz said, "Back in the '80s and early '90s, we were in a 'tough-on-crime' era."

Hence, many prisons were built, and the prison population soared, reaching its peak of 51,000 in 2007. Now, said Gautz, there are under 39,000 prisoners.

Since 2015, he said the state has been working with a new "offender success model" that involves prison re-education. "We've also worked with courts and prosecutors as to whether prison is the best option in all circumstances," he said, adding drug treatment sometimes makes more sense than prison.

Nevertheless, OCF is valued so widely as a significant economic institution that many local entities such as Wakefield's city council and the Wakefield-Marenisco board of education issued resolutions of support, along with related letters to representatives of this district.

For many pe, the situation is fiercely personal. "My son works there; he's a guard," said Richard Bouvette, supervisor of Marenisco Township. "I know lots of people there. Micki (Sorensen) is a former student of mine. Her husband works there, too; he's a guard. Someone down the street just got a job there."

Bouvette added, "It would be disastrous if they were to lose their jobs. It's one of the best paying jobs in the area, and it's hard to get a job with good benefits."

According to Bouvette, if OCF closed, not only would employees and their families suffer, but also the community at large. Those employees, he explained, stop for snacks and gasoline at local convenience stores. They pay taxes and support Aspirus Ironwood Hospital and countless other local businesses.

"Our township would be particularly hard hit," he said of Marenisco, because any loss of population would result in a reduced flow of government funds.

Casperson noted confusion as to OCF's status relates to the fact that MDOC isn't the only party to make decisions about prisons. Rather, it's a joint decision that includes input from Gov. Rick Snyder and the legislature.

And he concedes that such tensions may continue. "We've been fighting pretty hard the past 12, 14 years to keep Newberry alive," he said of the Newberry Correctional Facility that opened in 1996 in Luce County.

NCF grew after the 1992 closing of the Newberry Regional Mental Health Center.

Casperson said MDOC claims it can save $20 million per year by closing just one prison, but he said such closings then result in the overburdening of local jails.

He said the state could ease the burden by helping to create regional jails that would allow local jails to downsize, but he said that would require local initiation.

Another solution, he said, would be for the state to supply more funds to local jails, so that they can more easily manage their higher loads.

Finally, Casperson said he does not believe that the trend of reduced prison populations will continue.

"Crime hasn't really gone down that much, as far as I'm concerned," he concluded. "We're seeing more and more problems with drugs on the street."

 
 

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