When prisons close, communities may suffer

Capital News Service

COLDWATER —  It was lunchtime on a weekday but downtown Coldwater looked deserted.

In a nearly empty Subway on Marshall Street, only two customers grabbed a meal to-go. The restaurant is a mile from the Lakeland Correctional facility where the Florence Crane prison closed in 2011.

Just how much is a community affected economically when a prison closes?

That’s the question that arises as the state prepares to close West Shoreline Correctional Facility in Muskegon County. The facility has 1,245 prisoners and 174 employees, and the closing is expected to save $18.8 million in the 2019 budget.

Because Muskegon is in a metropolitan area with two other prisons nearby, “employees can easily be consolidated,” said Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

“It takes time to evaluate the economic impact of a prison closing on a city. It depends on the facility itself, the school system and also where the staff lived,”  he said.

Businesses like gas stations and restaurants “may feel the impact but since there are two other prisons in the area, the city won’t lose on income tax.”

The U.S. represents just 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it holds 25 percent of its inmates. More than 2.2 million people are locked up in state, local and other detention facilities across the United States.

Yet, in some states like Michigan, the prison population has been declining in recent years. During his State of State address early this year, Gov. Rick Snyder said the prison population was below 40,000 in 2017 for the first time in more than 20 years.

Michigan began seeing a decline in inmates in 2003, and Corrections has closed and consolidated 26 facilities since 2005, saving what it said was nearly $400 million.

The Department of Corrections estimates that prison population will continue to decline, but at a slower pace than the last two years. This year, the number of prisoners is projected to fall by 584 but the department says it has no plans to close another facility besides West Shoreline.

Policymakers are advocating for changes in the criminal justice system that will treat incarceration as the last resort for law-breakers. But what happens to prison properties after they close – as well as to the community  that depended on them — has been missing from those discussions.

The most recent closure was the Pugsley Correctional Facility in Traverse City, which shut its cell doors in 2016. “There were 230 employees and only 44 were laid off. Half of those 44 were offered jobs within the department but declined,” Gautz said.

Not all closed Michigan prisons are in metropolitan areas. Among the relatively recent closures in small communities were Florence Crane in Coldwater, Branch County, and the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility in Standish, Arenac County – which was the city’s largest employer.

When traveling through some of Coldwater’s main roads like Marshall and West Chicago streets, I was struck by the number of closed or abandoned businesses — even bookstores closed shop.

Cayden Sparks, the executive director of the Coldwater Area Chamber of Commerce, said the aftermath of two prisons closing – Florence Crane and Camp Branch — has been bad for the most part.

“Depending on where prison staff lived, some have had to relocate with their spouse and kids,” Sparks said. “That meant jobs leaving the city, less children in schools and therefore, less tax income in the community.”

Sparks said that working in a prison requires specialized skills, and when one closes, many staffers have difficulty finding jobs in other fields.

“In a city like Coldwater, there aren’t many jobs for someone trained as a prison guard,” Sparks said.

Prisons become a part of a community in various ways. In the case of Coldwater, Sparks said prison facilities were places where educational programs and trade schools for prisoners made community members participants in reshaping their society.

Gautz, from Corrections, said state-owned former prisons can be sold or rented to businesses, in which case it will still benefit the county through tax revenue.

“Muskegon is in an industrial park. We haven’t decided what we will do with it because right now the focus is on finding jobs for officials. But the county will be interested in using the facility,” Gautz said.

Sparks, from the Coldwater Chamber, said the challenge for small communities is that no businesses are big enough to occupy an entire prison facility. “It’s impossible for small businesses to use this space —  it’s either all or nothing.”

Parts of the closed prison facilities in Coldwater sit empty. Florence Crane is being used for disability services, Sparks said.

“The infrastructure needs to be kept together, and it’s a lot of money to maintain the facilities,” he said.

Sparks says to remedy the economic problems of Coldwater and other small communities, the downtown area needs to be developed. For example, creating a centralized business space with food and micro-brewery businesses could generate more employment opportunities.