Text of SB 689

Several years ago, the MDOC adopted a new policy of housing selected prisoners in county jails.  The initial Director’s Office Memorandum (DOM) provided that anyone classified at security Level 1 who was serving a flat sentence for an offense other than criminal sexual conduct could be sent to serve their time in a county jail.  As a practical matter, this limited the eligible prisoners to those serving two years for a felony firearm conviction.  Because they are not serving an indeterminate sentence, they are not subject to a parole board decision and are released when they have completed their time regardless of program participation.  However a subsequent DOM removed the flat sentence qualifier and allowed any Level 1 prisoner not a sex offender to be transferred to a county jail and left there until they were within 12 months of their earliest release date.

As a result of this policy, roughly 340 prisoners at any given time have been dispersed among 12-14 county jails that receive $35 per day per prisoner.  It is not known how these prisoners have been selected.  There is no relationship to the person’s home or county of conviction.  The jails are in counties spread across the Upper and Lower Peninsulas, though none are in Southeast Michigan where the majority of prisoners are from.  Prisoners cannot refuse these placements.

A number of organizations, including CAPPS, the American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Project, the Prisons and Corrections Section of the State Bar and the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman have expressed concern about treating prisoners like short-term jail detainees.

CAPPS’s 2015 report, 10,000 fewer Michigan prisoners: Strategies to reach the goal summarized the many problems with housing state prisoners in county jail beds.  The report explains at pages 79-80 that:

While called “virtual prisons” by the MDOC, county jails are quite unlike MDOC facilities. Jails are designed for pretrial detainees and people serving sentences of less than one ear – typically 30, 60, or 90 days. They are far more restrictive than prisons that are designed for people to live in for many years, even decades. These differences include:

  • Very limited access to any sort of activities, whether educational, vocational, treatment, work or recreation. There is little for people in jail to do but pass their time in a day room watching TV or playing cards.

  • Very restricted access to the visits, mail and telephone calls that enable prisoners to maintain their relationships with family and friends. Most jails have only non-contact or video conference calls. Some place age or height restrictions on visits by children. Some allow inmates to receive only postcards, not letters. The price of telephone calls for jail inmates is higher.

  • Access to medical care, law libraries and both indoor and outdoor recreation is much more restricted in jails.

  • Possession of personal property is typically not allowed. The MDOC allows prisoners at minimum and medium security facilities to own small televisions, MP3 players, books, board games, musical instruments and craft or art supplies.

Ironically, it is those prisoners who present the fewest management problems and have earned their way down to the lowest security level within the MDOC who are required to live under these conditions.

The use of leased county jail beds reduces the need for prison beds but does not reduce the prisoner population. While the cost per jail bed is $12,775 and the cost per prisoner at a Level I prison is about $5,500 more, MDOC spending only changes substantially when whole housing units are closed and staff is reduced.  The male prisoner population has actually been declining and the MDOC is not short on beds for male prisoners. The only real justification for the “virtual prisons” is that it is a means of channeling state funds to the counties.

The new MDOC administration, under the leadership of Director Heidi Washington, has reconsidered this practice.  Although DOM 2016-24 still authorizes transfers to county jails, in recent months the number of prisoners actually serving their sentences in jails has declined substantially.  Although the total capacity available in 14 county jails is 377 beds, the number utilized in January 2016 was 249, a drop of 46 from just the preceding month. The proposed MDOC budget for Fiscal Year 2016-17 does not contain any funding for this program.

In response, Sen. Darwin Booher, (R-Evart ) introduced Senate Bill 689 which would require the MDOC to place prisoners serving determinate sentences (i.e. felony firearm) into available county jail beds.  Participation by the counties would, of course, be optional. The counties most affected and the number of beds they have for lease are Ingham (90), Clinton (55), Jackson (50), Lenawee (40) and Clare (30).

SB 689 would enshrine in statute the notion that prisoners are a commodity to be moved around on the prisoner housing market for the benefit of county coffers.  While short-term use of jail beds might be defensible in the face of a severe prison overcrowding crisis, that is not the current situation.  Forcing the MDOC to house low security prisoners in highly restrictive conditions that are unwarranted and inappropriate so the counties can bolster their budgets is wholly indefensible.

You can find the language of the bill here: SB 689