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Planned Guard Layoffs Raise Fears of Riots in Michigan’s ‘Prison Town’

February 9, 1991

IONIA, Mich. (AP) _ This town once welcomed - even recruited - five prisons that other cities shunned. But now officials fear state budget cuts will leave the prisons with too few guards to control Ionia’s nearly 5,000 inmates.

Michigan lawmakers, struggling to erase a $1.1 billion budget deficit, have announced plans to lay off 2,800 correctional workers, about one-third of the state’s force. Among those affected are 1,800 prison guards.

Ionia, which proudly bills itself as the state’s ″prison town,″ would be hardest hit. The rural mid-Michigan community of 5,900 residents houses about 4,900 prisoners in five institutions. In the last two weeks, about 400 of the town’s approximately 2,300 prison employees received pink slips announcing layoffs scheduled to begin Feb. 17.

Local officials say the layoffs will damage the town’s economy as well as leave its prisons vulnerable to inmate uprisings like bloody riots that happened a decade ago.

Prisoners are already arming themselves in anticipation, one warden said.

At the 850-inmate Riverside Correctional Facility, which houses the criminally insane and other inmates, a shakedown last week revealed many prisoners began collecting knives after the layoffs were announced, Warden John Prelesnik said.

″It was a message from the inmates: ’If there aren’t going to be guards to protect us, we’re going to protect ourselves,‴ Prelesnik said. ″Most of our guys are lifers. They’ve got nothing to lose.″

″We’ve always considered corrections a very viable, very stable industry,″ said City Superintendent Tom Wieczorek. ″Who would have predicted, with the explosion of the inmate population, they’d be cutting employees back this drastically?″

In addition to the layoffs, Michigan’s budget cuts may force double-bunking at some prisons. More inmates in fewer cells, coupled with fewer corrections officers, is a blueprint for disaster, says Fred Parks, executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the state’s corrections officers union.

Currently, two officers are assigned to housing units with between 200 and 500 inmates, he said.

″When you start cutting down to one officer, you’re going to begin seeing high rates of assaults of both inmates and officers,″ Parks said. ″Ironically, most of the prisoners don’t want to see the cuts either because they’ll be easy prey for the predators inside.″

Parks said similar conditions sparked riots in 1981 at three state prisons, including Ionia’s Michigan Reformatory. Five days of rioting caused more than 100 injuries and millions of dollars of damage.

The staffing reductions are part of a 9.2 percent across-the-board state budget cut designed to erase Michigan’s deficit. The plan includes the layoffs of about 8,000 state employees in nine departments.

At least half the states in the country are struggling with budget crises, but Michigan is the only one considering such drastic corrections layoffs, said Anthony Travisono, executive director of the Maryland-based American Correctional Association.

″Because this is a public safety issue and a very volatile situation, most governors aren’t tinkering with it,″ Travisono said. ″The only thing you have between insanity and control are your corrections officers.″

Even some residents who usually are complacent about seeing barbed-wire fences from their back yards are concerned.

″I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never felt afraid,″ said Nell Padgett. ″But I’m kind of worried about this. I mean, what would happen if there was a riot?″

The town also is bracing for the economic jolt the layoffs will bring. Next to corrections, the city’s largest employers are automotive suppliers, which also have been hit hard by the recession and the drop in auto sales.

The city’s jobless rate in December, the most recent month for which figures are available, was 8.7 percent, compared with a statewide rate of 7.2 percent.

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