Michigan prisons seek more funding as COVID-19 expenses rise

Marquette Branch Prison is pictured. (Courtesy photo)

MARQUETTE — The Michigan Department of Corrections spends $3 million each week for testing and staff expenses related to the spike of COVID-19 cases in some prisons.

“It has already spent $30 million for only testing since the pandemic occurred,” said Chris Gautz, a communications officer for the agency. “It’s the cost of running an entire prison for one year.”

The state’s prison system has an annual budget of $2 billion. It received an additional $197 million from the federal government for help with the COVID-19 crisis, Gautz said.

Increased staff expenses are due to having to move workers around the system to accommodate shortages at prisons where corrections officers become ill.

The agency pays for meals and hotel rooms to workers who volunteer to change their locations to help with shortages in some prison facilities. Since summer, MDOC has spent over $1 million just on hotels for the staff.

Every third employee in Marquette prison was self-isolated or hospitalized as their COVID-19 test results turned positive.

Inmates in Muskegon, Marquette, Lakeland and G. Robert Cotton correctional facilities are at high risk as the COVID-19 cases are rising to triple digits, while Alger, Carson City, Kinross and the Michigan Reformatory facilities have only one case each among prisoners, according to recent data by the MDOC.

About three-quarters of the prison budget goes for staff salaries, Gautz said. The pressure on staff comes just as the system is getting a surge in retirements related to a hiring boom in the 1980s.

“Even though we are closing up some prison facilities, we are having shortages in staff as 50 corrections officers retire every month,” Gautz said. “MDOC has about 6,000 corrections officers and the department needs around 700 new officers every year to replace those who retire or get promoted.”

The pandemic led to closing the agency’s spring academy, which led to a shortage of officers, due to the pandemic. The system hired 525 corrections officers in the fiscal year of 2020, while 837 officers were recruited in 2019.

Since 2005, MDOC has closed or consolidated 28 prison facilities as the inmate population dropped. A facility in Detroit is slated to close in January and 220 workers there will be transferred.

“We cut some of our expenses by switching prison factories to make PPE (personal protection equipment) suits, masks, face shields, soap and other cleaning supplies,” Gautz said.

But COVID-19 related expenses will continue with the pandemic. The system is seeking more federal funding for the fiscal year of 2021, Gautz said. “If the federal government won’t help us, it will be a big challenge for us to keep our budget stable and unchanged.”

Prison officials are recruiting volunteers to cover staff shortages in some prisons.

“Most of the officers are taking 12-hour shifts and some of them are doing double shifts, which is 18 hours, to cover the shortage of workforce in facilities like in Marquette,” he said.

Active numbers of COVID-19 cases increased there recently. “Besides, we have recruited 30 volunteers for Marquette prison and they have been trained and already deployed to the facility,” he said.

Prison officials are focusing on probation to keep more people out of prison and doing everything to help inmates to avoid coming back to prison, said Heidi Washington, the director of the Corrections Department.

Almost 35,000 individuals are in prisons now. An additional 12,000 are on parole and 41,000 are on probation, according to corrections officials.

“Reducing the prison population is one way of cutting expenses,” Washington said. “It leads to savings from health care spending and energy costs, etc.”

The pandemic is an additional spur for bipartisan prison reform dealing with criminal procedures and changes in parole and probation and that could reduce prison population, said Alex Rossman, the external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

The bills are expected to come before the Legislature by the end of the year.

“This set of reforms was on everyone’s radar before the pandemic,” Rossman said. “But the budget cost savings on the prison system of Michigan exhilarated the urgency of reforms.”

People with criminal records have more trouble finding jobs or getting occupational licenses because of COVID-19 related economic challenges, he said.

“This package of criminal justice reform helps more people to keep out of prison as much as possible by limiting the process with special records or probations,” Rossman said. “These reforms help individuals to expunge criminal records, which lead to more professional occupational licenses accessible for them.”


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