Declining prison population does not translate to decreased spending

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Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan prisons face budgetary challenges due to rising costs of prisoner health care, staff shortages that lead to overtime labor costs and high retirement rates and pension payouts.

The rising costs come even as the Department of Corrections report that the prison population has dropped from 50,203 in 2007 to 32,186 in 2021. Paying pension benefits and overtime expenses caused by about 800 vacant positions is the cause of the budgetary strain, said Robin Risko, corrections budget analyst in the House Fiscal Agency. 

But even as the cost of food, health care, transportation and wages increase with inflation, corrections sees its consistent budget as a win, said Chris Gautz, director of communications for the department. The fiscal year 2022-23 corrections budget totals $2.1 billion. The budget has been between $1.7 billion and $2.2 billion since 2007.

“If we had not been as prudent and fiscally responsible, that budget could be hundreds of millions of dollars more because of all inflationary factors,” Gautz said. 

Based on 15 years of inflation, the corrections budget should have increased by 50% up to $3 billion, said John Cooper, CEO at Safe and Just Michigan, an organization that advocates for policies to reduce the use of incarceration. 

In the 1980s, the department built prisons to house the increasing prison population. And it hired more corrections officers.

Now it is seeing a reverse effect in which those officers have moved up the pay scale and are retiring and needing to be paid pensions, Gautz said.

About 75% of the department’s budget is used for staff salary and wages including benefits and pension costs, Gautz said. The size of the prison population doesn’t have much of an effect on that specific spending.

Consolidating housing units or closing entire prisons can influence staffing needs, but fixed costs such as healthcare, heating and electricity do not vary with the number of people incarcerated within the prison, Risko said.

The most recent prison closures include Michigan Reformatory last November, the Detroit Reentry Center in 2021 and the Ojibway Correctional Facility in 2018.

Due to the overwhelming lack of staff, the salaries of corrections officers from closed facilities aren’t eliminated from spending. Those people are transferred to another facility in need of staff to reduce the use of expensive mandatory overtime, Gautz said. 

“I don’t see a timeframe in the near future where we’re going to be fully staffed and then we’ll close the prison to the point that there are layoffs or people lose their jobs,” Gautz said. “That’s still quite a ways off.”

To combat the vacancies, Gautz said the department hires 200 correctional officers every three months. But during the same period, 150 officers leave the department due to retirements, promotions, being fired or taking other jobs.

Recruitment and retention of prison healthcare professionals is poor due to the lack of the ability to pay salaries comparable to hospitals or private practitioners, Risko said. That causes greater reliance on more expensive offsite care for incarcerated people. 

“If you’re a psychologist, a doctor or a dentist, you’re probably not taking the corrections option, you’re probably going into private practice somewhere,” Cooper said.

Michigan has the oldest aged population in the country, caused in part by prisoners serving long sentences who aren’t eligible for release until the minimum sentence is served or who have been sentenced to life without parole, Cooper said. When health problems start due to old age, medical expenses come out of the corrections budget instead of Medicaid.

“Go to a facility like Lakeland in Coldwater and there’s an entire wing that’s essentially a nursing home or hospice,” Cooper said. 

The cost of healthcare in the department made up 15.6% of the budget during fiscal year 2021, caused in part by the cost of off-site healthcare visits, according to the department’s 2021 Statistical Report. For example, hospitalizations require two officers to stay with the incarcerated person for the duration of the hospital stay, which puts more strain on the officers that stay in the prison. 

The 2023-2024 budget includes a proposal for about $15.5 million for an expansion of medical assisted treatment for prisoners struggling with opioid addictions, Gautz said. Another $1 million is needed to fund community corrections programming, which helps probationers stay out of the criminal justice system.

“We don’t want repeat customers. We want to help them to be successful and not be a tax burden but to be a taxpayer,” Gautz said.

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