BALDWIN — A row of sports-themed inspirational posters lines the hallway inmates will travel between the gym and classrooms at the North Lake Correctional Facility.
A new soccer field sits in the outdoor recreational area.
Prison officials say that field was “above and beyond‘ its contract requirements.
GEO Group, which owns and runs the facility, and the firm that handles its public affairs invited reporters and photographers to the facility Monday afternoon, as the prison is re-opening to inmates this month.
A recurring theme of the tour was how inmates can control their fates.
Bulletin boards placed in strategic locations advise inmates of how they can report prison rape or problems with the facility.
They’ll have access to salad and hot food bars during their roughly 20-minute lunch breaks.
“Inmates can pretty much eat as much as they want,‘ said John Oliver, director of operations for the Eastern Region, GEO Secure Services.
Inmates will even have a say in which shows will air on the TV screens hanging from the common area where their prison cells are located (though they don’t call it a cell block anymore; it’s “residential housing‘). The recreational committee will pick which channels to watch when.
“They love soccer,‘ one of the officials said during the media tour.
Education is perhaps one of the most socially acceptable ways in which people try to take charge of their own lives.
There’ll be opportunities for that, too, at the facility in Lake County’s Webber Township.
Prison officials discussed GED or equivalent programs and vocational training. One program will teach prisoners how to open their own business.
But if former prisoners open their own businesses after they are released, it won’t be in the United States.
Their country of residence will be out-of-their-control.
Instead, most inmates will be deported when their sentences are complete, following virtual hearings with a federal judge.
That’s because the 1,800-bed facility is set to house “criminal aliens,‘ male immigrants convicted of federal crimes.
The Bureau of Prisons, with which GEO Group has a 10-year contract, characterizes the future inmates of the facility as “low custody‘ inmates with less than 90 months remaining on their sentences.
Privately owned correctional facilities and immigration are controversial topics.
While GEO Group stresses that the prison is not an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility, that isn’t stopping Occupy ICE Detroit from planning a protest outside the facility on Tuesday.
But to Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin, the jobs that the facility brings to the county are critical.
“The positive is that it’s bringing jobs to Lake County,‘ Martin told the Cadillac News during a previous interview about the role of border patrol agents in local counties. “If you take the emotion away from that, if you take the politics away from that.‘
It’s not the first time the facility has brought jobs to Lake County. It’s also taken jobs when its contracts expired or were canceled. The facility has opened and closed several times since it was built in 1999.
“There’s a lot of doubt,‘ acknowledged Scott Wenger, the owner of a local insurance agency who serves on the prison’s community relations committee.
But Wenger isn’t one of the people who doubts that the facility will be successful this time.
There’s a difference between state and federal contracts (North Lake Correctional Facility’s last contract was with the state of Vermont), Wenger said. And anyway, people in Lake County need the work.
“When you make a living in the poorest county in the state, you bet on yourself,‘ Wenger told the Cadillac News.
This time around, the facility is expected to bring around 300 jobs, $17 million in wages and benefits every year.
About 260 people have already been hired. GEO Group is still looking for more correctional officers, food service workers and a psychologist.
Michigan Works! held job fairs for the facility in May and June, according to Shelly Keene, executive director for Michigan Works! West Central.
It was similar to what the jobs agency would provide any other employer, Keene said.
“We just try to promote the job openings as much as we can,‘ she said.
Keene said she didn’t have any data on whether the people hired had previously worked at the private prison; a GEO Group media relations worker said she would try to get that information.
Salaries generally range from $35,000 to $76,000.
The company says many employees have come from Lake or nearby counties; those that have moved to the area are renting homes in Baldwin or nearby towns like Ludington, Big Rapids and Cadillac.