BALDWIN -- The private company that operates the Michigan Youth Correctional Facility said it will increase training for guards and make other improvements after a Grand Rapids Press investigation into the prison for teen-agers.
A spokesman for Wackenhut Corrections Corp. of Florida disputed some of The Press' findings, including allegations by some guards and former guards that short-staffing has endangered the lives of guards and inmates.
But he acknowledged the prison, which opened in July, is a "dangerous place" and has had trouble recruiting employees.
"Recruiting has been difficult," said Wackenhut spokesman Patrick Cannan. "We're going to have to do different things to recruit. It's a remote location; the population base is not that great. It takes time. It's a start-up facility."
Wackenhut announced this week it was taking steps to "eliminate concerns raised" about the operations of its prisons for juveniles and women.
Also this week, about 140 inmates were transferred from the youth prison to other state facilities after the state Department of Corrections found it had violated the law by sending them there.
State law allows the prison system to house inmates there only if they are 16 and under when they committed their crime. But the state also was sending prisoners there who broke the law at age 17 or older.
The 450-bed prison had housed 330 inmates age 19 and under.
State Department of Corrections spokesman Matt Davis said the state will move enough young prisoners to Baldwin from other prisons to keep at least 240beds filled -- the occupancy level guaranteed by its contract with Wackenhut. The state pays Wackenhut $67.50 a day for each inmate housed there.
Wackenhut is the nation's second-largest private prison operator, with 33 prisons in the United States and six more abroad and profits last year of $22 million.
Cannan said Wackenhut executives have visited the youth prison in Baldwin in response to The Press' investigation.
A violent place
The Press found that the understaffed youth prison was more violent than Michigan's state-run maximum-security prisons -- a place where kids attacked one another and the guards and sometimes tried to kill themselves -- and provided little of the required inmate counseling.
Other news reports, including recent stories in The Miami Herald and on CBS' 60 Minutes, have focused on some of Wackenhut's other troubled facilities.
Among the changes, Wackenhut:
-- Has formed a task force to periodically visit its prisons. The task force will include an independent ombudsman to listen to inmate complaints.
-- Has created an "Office of Professional Responsibility" to investigate allegations of employee misconduct.
-- Is creating a Director of Training position to work with employees. The guards who work at the youth prison already receive the same training as Michigan prison guards, Cannan said. "With this training person, we will be developing additional training," he said.
-- Will consider adding staff at some of its facilities, including the youth prison, and increasing pay, though Cannan said pay has not been an issue in Baldwin.
Wackenhut recently hired a social worker for the Baldwin prison and started anger management classes, with an enrollment so far of 29 inmates, Cannan said. Other group counseling programs will start soon, he said.
Cannan conceded that the Baldwin prison is violent.
"We do know these are murderers, rapists and armed robbers, and they're not to be dealt with lightly," he said.
"There's going to be some (critical incidents). It's a dangerous place, so the staffing and training are critical."
The state has refused to send new inmates to the prison until Wackenhut can hire more guards. About 100 are working there now.
Cannan said a class of 40 guards should be ready to start there in July, which will put the prison above its mandated staffing levels.
Dispute over hours worked
In a statement, Cannan disputed some of The Press' findings, including allegations by a former guard that she was forced to work long hours, sometimes 70 hours a week. He said she averaged 5.5 hours a week of overtime per week from early May 1999 to late December.
A personal log she kept showed she worked 74.5 hours the week of Nov. 8, and a time slip issued by Wackenhut and obtained by The Press showed she worked 46 hours of overtime over a two-week period in October.
The head of the recently formed guard union said some corrections officers still work 70-hour weeks to fill shifts. Those who don't volunteer for long hours are ordered to work overtime, said union chief Kevin McDaniels, a guard who said he recently worked three 16-hour shifts over a two-week period.
Michigan Department of Corrections Director Bill Martin said he welcomed Wackenhut's changes, though he contends conditions at the prison have improved in recent months.
"Those sound like positive moves that a corporation or any employee could or should make," he said.
In the meantime, state Sen. William VanRegenmorter, R-Georgetown Township, said he and several other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee plan to tour the prison Monday.
"We want to see the facility, get a much better image of what the facility is like," said VanRegenmorter, chairman of the committee.
They also hope to interview guards, inmates and administrators, he said.