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LANSING — During the past five years, Michigan’s prison population has dropped by nearly 8,000 and 20 facilities have closed, leaving the Department of Corrections with one question to answer: Where should it keep those who stay?
Matching prisoners’ security risks to the appropriate facility has become a never-ending task.
The department tracks the number of prisoners within the system, as well as their security rank — Level I presenting the lowest risk and Level IV presenting the highest — and adjusts its facilities accordingly.
However, some experts question the accuracy of the department’s evaluation process. Inmates are evaluated annually — twice annually if they’re new to the system — to determine if they should be moved to a different security level facility or if they should stay put.
The majority of prisoners are in either Level I or II facilities, with the most recent report showing 39 percent in Level I and 34 percent in Level II.
To accommodate all Level I inmates, the department converted the Newberry Correctional Facility from a Level II facility to Level I in October, a move that cut about 50 full-time equivalent positions and is projected to save between $3 million and $5 million.
However, the transition process has not been completely smooth. Kris Kangas, president of the Newberry chapter of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing correctional officers, said there were problems after the reduction in staff, including a prisoner-on-prisoner assault in January.
Kangas said increases in violence have been documented elsewhere in the system.
“We’ve been seeing an increase in violent activity, and it did culminate in a murder at Ojibway Correctional Facility,” Kangas said. “A lot of that might have to do with the classification system.”
The system has four levels: Level I or minimum security; Level II or medium security; Level IV or close security; and Level V or maximum security. There are 786 men in maximum security, 5,000 in close security, 14,300 in medium security and 18,600 in minimum security, according to Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Department of Corrections.
About 2,100 women are behind bars, and more than half are in minimum security facilities.
On average, it costs about $34,000 to house a prisoner for a year. The average cost per maximum security prisoner is about double that of a minimum security prisoner, Marlan said, because higher security facilities have fewer prisoners and more staff.
Prisoners are evaluated on factors such as time served, history of violence, likelihood of recidivism and the possibility of attempting to escape, said John Cordell, public information officer.
Inmates can be ticketed — reported — for transgressions such as getting in fights, attempting to escape or failing to follow protocols. Accumulating tickets can prevent prisoners from moving to lower security facilities.
Peter Martel, an associate of the American Friends Service Committee Michigan Criminal Justice Program, in Ann Arbor, said though it is more cost effective to have more Level I and II prisoners, the system doesn’t always provide fair opportunities for prisoners to move to lower levels.
The evaluation process doesn’t explain explicitly what justifies holding a prisoner back, Martel said, hurting those who have made progress but still have tickets against their name.
“They have an objective form that they use, but the problem is that they have very vague reasons why they can hold someone back,” Martel said. “So the person might have received a ticket a long time ago and they can keep using it against them.”
Because of that, Martel said, many prisoners who are ready move to a Level II facility, which offers more rehabilitation and educational programs, are kept in a higher level facility.
They remain at a higher level “because someone in the administration doesn’t like what they’re doing or what they’re serving time for,” Martel said. “It might be keeping someone in a Level IV or a Level V even though they earn the points to move down.”
Cordell said lower security facilities can afford more programs because there can be larger class sizes with less security.
All prisoners begin at Level IV so they can be monitored and acclimate to the system. That stint generally lasts at least six months, Cordell said, and from there they can move down if they prove they are ready.
It comes down to a matter of management, Cordell said. A program that could safely handle 20 Level II inmates with one instructor and no extra security would be limited to seven or eight inmates and would require additional security at a more secure facility.
“We would expect our Level I prisoners to behave themselves the vast majority of the time, while with a Level IV or a Level V, that is not the case,” he said, adding that as inmates become more manageable, they are more open to these programs.
“What we have found is that as their management potential increases, their likelihood of volunteering to join a program increases as well,” he said.
But Martel argued that often the prisoners who need assistance the most are the ones with the least access to it.
Martel said there is no cut-and-dried solution for dealing with the smaller corrections system, but there are ways to do it more efficiently by reducing the number of prisoners in high security facilities.
“I’m not convinced that the department has done this downsizing in the most efficient way,” he said. “Obviously, the high security beds are the most expensive.”