MI program aims to cut budget by putting prisoners back in workforce

By: Ryan Famuliner Email
By: Ryan Famuliner Email

It's no secret Michigan has some serious issues with money and crime.

That's why the Wolverine State has launched a program that aims to address both of those problems in a way that might surprise you.

The Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI) is a program designed to put prisoners back in the workforce.

For years, Michigan's jails were filled to the brim.

“We went through that whole period of being tough on crime and we locked people up so Michigan ended up with one of the largest prison populations in the nation,” said Marvin Austin, Regional Director of the Heartland Alliance at the Opportunity Center in Benton Harbor.

That large prison population was often a burden budget-wise. Michigan's cost of housing a prisoner is well above the national average of about $23,000, closer to $29,000 a year per prisoner.

“But the reality is most of the people that go to prison are going to come home sometime. So if you're just locking people up you just wait until their sentence is done, you send them home, what you find is the cycle back into prison,” Austin said.

That's why the state created the MPRI, which helps place ex- convicts who have served their time.

MPRI is administered through local sites like the Opportunity Center.

The Michigan Department of Corrections says that when MPRI started on a limited basis in 2005, 5 out of 10 prisoners returned to jail for new crimes within 3 years of being released.

Since then, that's decreased to less than 4 out of 10.

So, the one-time cost of less than $2,000 Michigan spends on the re-entry program per prisoner at places like the Opportunity Center can help offset nearly $29,000 dollars annually; if it's the difference between making a successful life outside of jail and recidivism.

“So literally everyone wins,” Austin said.

Those with the most to gain are the prisoners trying to re-invent their lives, which is no small task.

“The effort for them is probably double what it would be for someone else. But those that put the time in they do find that they can be successful,” said Rose Hunt, Director of the Opportunity Center.

Once they get out of jail, participants go through an intense program that helps them focus on the steps they need to take to again become a functioning member of society.

“They come in with the odds against them. They know they've made mistakes and I think in a lot of cases they're really sorry that they've created such a negative situation for themselves,” Hunt said.

For many, it is tough to stay away from the behaviors that landed them in jail in the first place.

“If they make an error we don't judge them right way and throw them out of the program. We say these are the 3 options you have to pick which one you think is best for you. Or we have them take the problem to a group of their peers and help them decide what option is best,” Hunt said.

But it's also tough to move back into a regular life. Just finding a job creates some blatant obstacles.

“They have to check that box that says they do have a felony, and so we try to help them draft (cover) letters that kind of put a human element a face to who they are,” said Syrina Butler, the senior employment counselor for MPRI in Benton Harbor.

“I think it's hypocritical and contradictory for society to say you've done your time and now they want you to get out and make a success and they not embrace you and help you make that success. If they don't, then what do they expect you to do?” said Virgil Hatcher, a peer counselor at the Opportunity Center.

The Michigan DOC says there's been some major progress since 2005, thanks in part to MPRI.

Corrections spending has been cut by $400 million dollars, and other efficiency measures have also contributed to the state closing 12 prison facilities in 7 years.

The state is working on expanding this program, which the Opportunity Center is rooting for.

“We're going to help people get back on their feet and be successful. They're the parents of the next generation and once they're being productive you're really going to see the change in the communities,” Austin said.

For a report on the progress of MPRI from the 1st quarter of 2009, click on the link to the .pdf above. To visit the DOC's website for MPRI, follow the link below.

Coming up Wednesday in part two of this three part series; we'll introduce you to a man who just got out of prison and is using the program to help turn his life around.

We'll take you inside the program and show you how the Opportunity Center helps people break through barriers.

Tune in Wednesday, for the ‘Just Before 6:00 Report’.

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