By ALEKS TAPINSH
Capital News Service
LANSING — State officials are confident that funding for Michigan’s prisons this year is sufficient for safe and secure services, despite new staffing cuts.
However, the union representing corrections officers contends that the state already may be trimming too many services.
Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Department of Corrections, says that this year’s budget is on track even if the number of inmates increases and the department has to reopen closed prisons.
“Our budget is secure for this year,” Marlan said.
But the department is trying to save money at the expense of needed services, according to the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing prison guards.
Here’s what the department has done so far:
• Provided an early-retirement package for some employees.
• Reallocated inmates, so two of them share the same cell.
• Closed down two state prisons in Jackson and Ionia.
• Maintained a hiring freeze.
The Department of Corrections maintains 42 prisons and 13 camps and has $1.6 billion budgeted for this year.
The department’s desire to save more money, current budget constraints and a rising prison population would affect staff, prisoners and the community, said Mel Grieshaber, vice president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, an AFL-CIO union, based in Lansing.
In spite of budget constraints, Marlan said the department would continue most of its projects, including its educational program. The law requires some prisoners to earn a General Equvalency Diploma if they want to be released on parole.
The department has maintained a hiring freeze for some time.
“We are losing just over 600 people” to early retirement, Marlan said. “But with these losses, safety and security shouldn’t be threatened.”
Bonnie Johnson, a correction officer at the State Prison in Southern Michigan in Jackson, has a different estimate:”There are 600 to 800 vacancies not filled right now.”
Besides the hiring freeze, the department insisted some inmates share cells. It is known as “double-bunking.”
“Double bunking means more problems,” Johnson said.
Grieshaber said, referring to double-bunking, “We have to make sure the prisons don’t become more overcrowded”. However, heagrees that the department has to “stuff the prisoners wherever you can.”
As an alternative way to save money, both Johnson and Grieshaber suggest the department should cut more bureaucracy.
“The number of the supervisors more than doubled in the last years,” said Johnson.
An Ionia corrections officer disagrees.
The number of supervisors is sufficient, said Dean Peterson, of the Belemy Creek Correctional Facility.”They all bring a wide range of experiences and opinions.”
But both the union and the department agree on one thing: Public safety comes first.
“Public safety is the bottom line,” Grieshaber said. “We pray and hope we can live with the current budget.”
“Our first and foremost priority is safety and security,” Marlan said.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ALEKS TAPINSH