The number of prisoners housed in costly higher-security cells in Michigan's prison system has plummeted over the last 20 years, while the number of prisoners kept in less expensive, low-security housing units has soared, according to data compiled by the Free Press.
The statistics lend credence to claims by corrections officers that the Michigan Department of Corrections is pushing down, to lower and less-costly levels, prisoners' security classifications in order to save money. The union says that's a dangerous practice that can lead to incidents such as the recent disturbance at Kinross Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula, where low-security Level 2 inmates smashed windows, sinks and other prison property.
Corrections Department spokesman Chris Gautz denied the department is pushing down security classifications to save money and said some of the classification numbers are misleading because the way some prison beds are classified has changed.
In 1995, there were 1,663 prisoners with the highest security rating — Level 5 — representing 4.3% of the total inmate population, records released by the department show. By 2015, there were fewer than half as many Level 5 inmates — 812 — representing 1.8% of the prison population.
The number of Level 1 and 2 prisoners has swelled from 27,779 in 1995, when they comprised 71.8% of the population, to 32,773 in 2015, when they comprised 76.5% of all inmates.
"This tells us that the classification system is being manipulated, due to budget pressures in the Department of Corrections," said Tom Tylutki, president of the Michigan Corrections Officers union.
"This is moving prisoners down (in classification) who aren't ready for that environment."
About 250 former Level 2 inmates at Kinross were sent to higher-security prisons after the Sept. 10 disturbance, which corrections officers described as a prison riot but the administration said it fell short of that.
The higher the security classification, the more expensive it is to house a prisoner because of factors such as how many prisoners can be housed together, whether they can be locked down and how many corrections officers are needed to watch them. The classification a prisoner receives is calculated using a score sheet and has more to do with how compliant a prisoner is and how well the prisoner is expected to adjust to life behind bars than to what kind of criminal record the prisoner has.
The Corrections Department has been under pressure from Republican lawmakers and struggling, mostly without success, to bring its annual budget below $2 billion — which, until recently, was the biggest draw on the state's general fund by any single state department.
A 2015 Corrections Department report said the aggregate cost of housing prisoners at Level 1 facilities was $79.14 per day, while the cost at Level 2 facilities was $90.58 per day. The Level 4 cost was $114.54 per day. The report didn't give a Level 5 cost, since no Michigan prison houses only Level 5 prisoners, but the Level 5 cost is higher still.
For example, the cost of housing at Baraga Correctional Facility, which houses Level 1 and Level 5 prisoners, is $136.43 per day. The cost at Ionia Correctional Facility, which houses Level 2 and Level 5 prisoners, is slightly more than $160 a day. There are no Level 3 prisoners.
Gautz said the way certain beds are classified has changed since 1995, and that puts some of the numbers out of context.
The department in 1995 counted about 500 Level 5 beds at the Charles Egeler Reception & Guidance Center near Jackson, where new prisoners are temporarily sent for assessment. But today, those beds are counted under "other," not as Level 5, Gautz said. Also, about 360 Level 5 beds were counted in 2000 at the Mid-Michigan Youth Correctional Facility, but that prison near Baldwin is no longer part of the system.
Still, Gautz could not point to any classification changes to account for the plunge in the number of Level 4 beds, which fell from 6,000 in 1995 to 4,653 in 2015.
Tylutki said the numbers, which the Free Press compiled for comparison purposes from reports provided by the department, provide an accurate picture of what has happened in the department.
He said there have been several instances of the department converting all or part of a higher security-level prison to a lower security level, while mostly keeping the same prisoners. For example, in 2009, the Alger Correctional Facility was converted from a Level 5 prison to a Level 4 prison, but it kept about 85% of the same inmates, he said.
Gautz said the way prisoners are assessed to determine their security classifications has not changed since 2009 and prison budgets do not come into play.
"We do have more Level 1s," Gautz said. "That isn't a bad thing. It means we're doing a good job of getting prisoners ready for parole. We're getting them ready to go out the door."
The number of costly high-security inmates in Michigan prisons has plunged over the last 20 years and the number of inexpensive low-security inmates has soared. Corrections officers say it’s a risky way of saving money.