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.