Of cons and condiments: Prisons cut costs in dimes and dollars

The state Department of Corrections will cut back on patrols outside its prison walls and change the job classifications of some corrections officers next month to save an estimated $25 million a year.

But the head of the union representing the nearly 8,000 corrections officers complained those moves could make the prisons less safe, while acknowledging there is little the union can do to prevent them.

Corrections Department officials disagree that the changes will make the prisons less secure, but say the changes are necessary to rein in the amount Michigan spends on corrections, now about $2 billion, more than 20 percent of the state’s general fund budget.

“We’re under tremendous pressure to do whatever we can to reduce our costs,” Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said. Corrections Director Daniel Heyns is “going to look at ways to cut costs,” he added, “but he’s not going to put in place anything that would jeopardize the safety of his officers or the public.”

Beginning April 1, the department will eliminate the job classification known as "resident unit officer," the designation for the 2,500 officers assigned to work in cellblocks and housing units. That change will cost each of those employees $1.46 an hour and save the state $8 million a year in salaries and $4 million in benefits, Marlan said.

Leaders of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union representing the corrections officers, protested the move in a meeting with Corrections Department officials last week. In a message to its members, the union acknowledged the department has the authority to change the job classification, but said it will appeal to the Michigan Civil Service Commission.

Resident unit officers maintain safety by becoming familiar with each inmate and consistently enforcing rules, MCO Executive Director Mel Grieshaber said. The department did not propose eliminating that job classification during recent contract negotiations, he said.

“To unilaterally do something like this is very offensive,” he said.

The 2,500 employees now classified as resident unit officers will not be laid off, Marlan said, but will be given the same classification as the state’s 5,500 other corrections officers. Most, if not all, will be assigned to work in the same cellblocks and housing units as before the change, he explained.

In addition to saving money, the change will bring uniformity to the chain of command, he said. Resident unit officers now report to assistant resident unit managers, who report to resident unit managers. After April 1, each resident unit officer will report to a sergeant, who reports to a lieutenant and on up the line.

Also on April 1, the department plans to reduce the number of officers assigned to patrol the perimeters of each prison in vehicles 24 hours a day. Fewer officers will continue random patrols outside the prisons, a change recommended by a committee of wardens that is expected to save $13.2 million a year, Marlan said.

New technology, including cameras and motion sensors, make the 24-hour patrols unnecessary, he said.

“Our officers are very concerned about the security of the institution,” Grieshaber said. Perimeter patrols not only guard against escapes, but also prevent drugs and other contraband from being thrown over the fence and into the prison, he said.

“Our concern is by the time we get suited up and out there, something bad could have already occurred,” Grieshaber said.

“We heard the same thing when we started taking officers out of our gun towers,” Marlan responded, “and we’ve seen no resulting decrease in security.” The department began randomly staffing the gun towers in 2005 at an annual savings of $15 million, he said.

The department, after hiring a supply chain consultant, recently cut the cost of feeding each inmate from $2.60 a day to under $2 by standardizing meals throughout the system and eliminating such extras as salt and pepper.

A few months ago, the department began issuing Tasers for its corrections officers to use in breaking up fights. As a result, the officers and inmates have suffered fewer injuries, Marlan said, and the state is saving on medical and worker compensation costs.

All these cost-cutting measures come as the department is facing possible competition from private prison companies. Two bills in the Legislature would allow the state to send adult inmates to a privately run prison now closed in Baldwin. And the Corrections Corporation ofAmerica, the country’s largest private prison company, recently offered to buy and operate some of the state’s prisons.

The department so far has shown no interest in selling prisons or sending inmates to private facilities, preferring to find other ways to cut costs.

Pat Shellenbargeris a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.

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Thu, 03/08/2012 - 11:07am
Management must want raises.
Joe Morefield
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 12:09pm
This idiot also thinks that the RUO's WANT to stay in the housing units.....WRONG! The extra pay is the only reason making it even close to worth directly dealing with inmates day-in and day-out, and some days no pay is worth what we have to put up with! And no perimeter vehicle? Are you NUTS? Why don't we just tear down the fences and paint a line with a sign saying "Do not cross"? What do we need fences for? Nobody has tried to escape....Sell the fence metal for scrap> COME ON>>>>>DUH!?!?!?!
Thomas W. Donnelly
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 12:12pm
I spent a semester as a tutor in a federal pen. Prisons are grim places.The job of a prison guard is tough, filled with tension,very stressful. Citizens should encourage prison authrorities to pay the guards well for such an important job. Cutting a guard's pay is really demoralizing.To cut $1.50 per hour arbitrarily from the guards pay is a slap in the face. Cutting out salt and pepper to save money might seem minor, but in the closed environment of a prison, eliminating salt and pepper is seen as another slight to a prisoner unhappy to be in jail. Budget drones can easily cut money from prison budgets, but each move can bring shock waves to life behind bars. The drones need to spend a few days as a guard in a prison to appreciate what it takes to do the job.
Pamela D.
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 1:14pm
These decisions are extremely dangerous in many ways: safety of public, safety of officers, safety of prisoners and for the facility as a whole. The resident unit officer is corrections officers who work in a housing unit where the prisoner resides. These officers have learned the routine of each of their prisoners(where I work there is Level 1 prisoners 160 per unit, Level 2 prisoners 240 per unit, Level 4 prisoners 192 per unit). The officer can identify the inmate immediately, they know that cell he belongs, their behavior, their health issues and can identify when that is no longer normal. This observation can help in locating weapons, possible assaults, gang activities, drugs, suicidal behavior and help deescalate it before it becomes a larger issue. The decision of eliminating resident unit officers can cause discord by uprooting a prisoner’s regular routine. Routine for a prisoner has a calming affect, if that is interrupted daily it can cause panic, disturbances and even riots. I would think the most important issue to you would be safety and security of the public. Keeping that in mind, I am trying to understand the decision to close a vital security position at correctional facilities. The alert response vehicle (ARV) and towers are our first and last line of defense that stands between the correctional facilities and the public. Several incidents in the past few years at facilities have proven the necessity of this position. Two examples of this would be the escape attempt at Kinross and the contraband entry (weapons) over the fence at Handlon Michigan Training Unit. These were instrumental in shutting down what could have been a potentially dangerous situation for the public. These vehicles are on alert continuously observing the grounds for unauthorized vehicles, inclement weather, possible breach of security line (fence) and escape attempts. The vehicle has responsibility to insure that the fence lines not covered by Towers are secure. Visibility and presence of the ARV is essential to the security of correctional facilities. The convicted felons are sentenced to prison after their crime against society. Crimes in which range from simple fraud to criminal sexual conduct to mass murder are just a few the types of crimes they were sentenced to. It is important that you understand that criminals do not stop their criminal behavior just because they come to prison. In fact, crime is just as present inside the walls as it is in society. Safety and Security is always a necessary priority in dealing with a correctional facility. The MDOC is not being factual with the public on what really goes on inside the walls and due to this, the Governor and MDOC can achieve their goals.
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 1:28pm
This is what happens when a jail administrator is hired to run a prison system. It's like hiring a small engine mechanic to work on diesel engines. How can a camera stop a person from throwing a gun or drugs over a fence? Sure, it can record it, IF the person on the camera (one person watching 50 or more cameras) catches it and that person can alert staff to check it out. And the department is NOT "reducing" perimeter vehicles, they're eliminating them, one will make random rounds of the perimeter and respond to potential problems. After leaving their assigned job, getting in the vehicle, starting it up, and driving to the area. By which time the person who just tossed the gun and drugs over the fence is home enjoying lunch. Not from employee laziness or lack of concern, but from simple logistics, they can't get there any faster. Remember it's also the employees life and safety on the line when those items get inside a prison. And the news repeaters and legislators sit on the sidelines and talk about something they know little about. This administration won't be happy until they get someone killed, either staff or enough inmates. THEN they'll back up one step and claim this is the safe level and blame the people doing the work inside the prisons for not doing their jobs. Please stop the misinformation of "private" prisons. The only thing "private" about them is who runs them. They STILL suck PUBLIC money with NO accountability. Line staff are paid next to nothing, the administrators make even more than public administrators and the prisons are far more dangerous than state run facilities. If they want to be PRIVATE prisons, let them find their own funding source, just like any other private enterprise, like GM or the local Mom and Pop restaurant. It's interesting that our legislators keep beating that dead horse of "our prisons costs are higher than the midwest average' but "forget" to mention that our legislator pay is also higher than the midwest average. And, Geeze, if Indiana and Ohio jumped off a bridge should Michigan jump off a bridge too?
T. Nurenberg
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 1:36pm
This is crazy making cuts like this. This is putting not only the officers at more of an unnecessary risk but the public as well. The PSV is the last line of defense so why eliminate the position and potentially open themselves up for a lawsuit? I understand there has to be cuts, but there are other areas or departments that can be scaled back some. Leave the front line alone, this is just wrong on every level. The public has to be made aware of this issue. I think that once they realize the danger, more will speak up.
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 5:37pm
By cutting prison patrols they mean eliminating all perimeter security personnel on the fence line. Gun towers have not been maned for years, in favor of perimeter security vehicles that patrol the fence line. There will now be no one actively patrolling the perimeter. While there are cameras on the fence line it's been years since prisons in Michigan have had staff to actively watch them. The cameras are watched by staff who have a variety of other duties to perform. Some of these other duties are of a critical security nature and would pose an immediate breach of security to not pay 100% attention. While this DOES pose a risk to prison staff the risk to the public, especially to people living near correctional facilities is greater. Governor Snyder are placing the public at great risk in the name of cutting costs. This move is irresponsible at best malfeasance at worst !
Thu, 03/08/2012 - 6:18pm
That crazy wut there trying to do. Just because there in prison they still human just like us that in the outside world. Cutting guards that's crazy. They already eat shittie as food and to take away salt and pepper is silly. They do not care it not them or no one in there family. Daniel heyns do not care its not his jod. Do like federal they help change the drug law and it help out a lot of them to come home help bring back good time and release when its time instead holding them back for wut give a second chance.
Mon, 03/12/2012 - 7:15pm
Is there a shortage of people qualified to be prison guards and how much do they make with benefits? This country is filled with people doing crappy jobs for low wages without health care from picking lettuce to cleaning toilets. Public wages have been rising against falling private wages and tax revenue so why shouldn't guards join in the economic pain? The real issue is locking up thousands of people for victimless drug crimes. Legalize drugs, control them and tax them. There are better ways to save money in the system than cutting wages but the obstacle is public ignorance and fear.
Thu, 03/22/2012 - 7:24am
A head of lettuce is not going to toss urine and/or feces at you. Come in a prison for one day and tell me if the job equates with flipping burgers.