State prison to close in western Upper Peninsula

MARENISCO — State lawmakers and candidates across party lines are weighing in on a Michigan Department of Corrections decision to close the Ojibway Correctional Facility in Gogebic County later this year.

The closure of the 1,162-bed facility will result in the loss of 203 jobs for area employees, with 116 of those being corrections officers.

The facility currently houses roughly 800 inmates, who will be transported to other facilities around the state as a result of the scheduled Dec. 1 closure, according to the MDOC.

A Tuesday MDOC press release states the department will work with employees, union leadership and the Office of the State Employer on bumping chains and transfer options for employees.

“The department values the dedication of the hard working staff at Ojibway Correctional Facility, and the support surrounding communities have provided over the years,” MDOC Director Heidi Washington said. “We recognize this is a challenging time for staff and we will continue to support them through this process.”

Unionized employees at the facility are represented by the Michigan Corrections Organization. MCO President Byron Osborn said in a statement that the closure would be especially disruptive to affected employees due to the facility’s rural location, but stressed that the union would work with MDOC to “mitigate the impact” of the closure as much as possible.

“The nearest Michigan prison is about 100 miles away,” Osborn said. “The MCO leaders understand the stress this will inevitably cause OCF staff and their families and the impact it will have on their small, tight-knit community and the surrounding areas.”

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who said he has suggested cost-cutting measures to MDOC in the past that would not include the closing of state correctional facilities, said local communities are forced to subsidize prison closures.

“This is a game of cups and ball where the state is simply hiding the true costs of closing down prison facilities,” Casperson said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. “Our county jail populations are ballooning because of these closures, causing a greater burden on county budgets that are already stretched thin. And that is unacceptable.”

In an emailed statement, State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, said the closure is bad news for employees.

“(They) support their families thanks to the good jobs that Ojibway Correctional Facility provides for people across the Western U.P. Some of these workers drive from surrounding towns and counties, but now the closest facility they might be able to transfer to would be more than 100 miles away,” Dianda said. “That’s a tough option for a family up here particularly in the winter months.”

State Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, said while all legislators are concerned with spending tax dollars responsibly, they are also responsible for keeping communities safe.

“Keeping our communities safe includes not overtaxing our local county jails and police officers who are operating their departments on shoestring budgets with limited staff and financial resources,” Cambensy said.

MDOC points to a 10 percent statewide decline in prison population, which dropped below 40,000 for the first time in 20 years as one of the reasons for the closure. Other factors that may have influenced the decision include bed space vacancy, security level, location and programming availability.