Residents of Michigan Town Want Prison to Stay Open, Even If That Means Housing Guantanamo Bay Detainees

Faith Bowerson, left, and her siblings Spencer and Desiree want the prison in Standish, Mich., where their father has worked for 20 years, to stay open.
Faith Bowerson, left, and her siblings Spencer and Desiree want the prison in Standish, Mich., where their father has worked for 20 years, to stay open. (By Michael Randolph -- Bay City Times Via Associated Press)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

STANDISH, Mich., Aug. 4 -- From the road, the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility looks like it could be a country resort, lush wooded grounds surrounded by corn fields and flower beds.

Prison employees and residents of this northern Michigan town are proud of the facility and want to keep it open at all costs, even if that means becoming the new home of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

The news that the Obama administration is considering moving some detainees at the military prison in Cuba to facilities within U.S. borders, including Standish and Fort Leavenworth, Kan., prompted Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) and several state legislators Tuesday to voice their opposition. But residents here are most concerned about keeping some of the 340 jobs and other economic sustenance the prison provides, in a county where unemployment tops 17 percent.

A hand-painted sign outside the lockup begs "Save Our Town, Save Standish Max," referring to the collection of buildings behind razor-topped fencing that contains 604 beds, usually reserved for maximum-security inmates. Throughout the quaint, somewhat ramshackle borough of 1,500 people, marquees and handmade posters outside churches, bars and Denise's Beauty Barn carry the same message.

The facility is one of three prisons and five correctional camps slated to close because of the state budget crisis and a declining prison population. The Michigan Corrections Department needs to cut $120 million from its $2 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start in October, and 500 to 1,000 jobs will be lost with the closings.

State officials are making a last-ditch effort to turn Standish into a medium-security facility for about 1,100 California prisoners. They also proposed housing inmates from Alaska.

And then there is the Guantanamo Bay option.

Some residents loathe the idea of terrorism suspects locked up in their town, but relish the chance to keep people employed. Others scoff at the notion that current guards would keep their jobs in a federal facility housing such detainees. State and federal spokesmen said they had no information on likely hiring practices.

"The state officers are more than capable of doing anything the federal government would have us do," said Bob Davis, president of the local corrections officers union. "But if they bring them here, I think we'll be cut out of jobs. They'll want their own personnel, there will be CIA all over the place."

Standish warden Thomas Birkett first heard about the proposal on television over the weekend. "There had been rumors, but no one in our department knows what it means, no one can tell you anything," he said.

Over the past few months, former governor John Engler (R) and Michigan legislators and business leaders brought up the idea of housing Guantanamo Bay detainees in the state. Engler proposed putting them in the sparsely populated and remote Upper Peninsula, which has two maximum-security facilities.

Standish City Manager Michael Moran III supports bringing the detainees to town. Even if locals do not keep their jobs, he said, the economic stimulus would be crucial. The prison pays the town $36,000 per month in water and sewer fees, and new employees would help keep businesses afloat. If the prison closes, teachers probably will lose jobs as school enrollment drops, post office revenue will plummet, and family-owned restaurants and bars will suffer. The town is home to small factories making fire sprinklers, pet food and plastic parts, but the prison is by far the biggest employer.

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