Taking Guantánamo detainees could help hard-hit Michigan town

If guarding the controversial prisoners keeps a Standish, Mich., prison open, many locals are for it.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Standish Max: Michigan plans to close the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility on Oct. 1, for budgetary reasons. Housing Guantánamo detainees here would blunt an exodus of people and jobs from the nearby town. Federal officials toured the facility last month to assess its suitability.
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    Standish Max: Siblings Faith (behind the sign), Spencer, and Desiree Bowerson held signs in Standish in June to support keeping the prison open (and their father employed).
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    City manager: Michael Moran supports prison.
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The scuttlebutt among residents of this one-stoplight town is not your garden-variety chitchat. Graver matters are at hand.

Dominating discussion in Standish, Mich., is the prospect that suspected international terrorists at the Guantánamo detention camp in Cuba may, within months, be living two miles down the road at the state prison. Close behind is a countywide jobless rate of 25 percent.

The revelation that Guan­tánamo detainees could be shipped here has caused a buzz around town. But it was not nearly the bombshell that landed in June, when residents learned that Standish Max, as the maximum-security prison is known, would fall victim to the budget ax in Lansing and be closed. As doomsday scenarios go, the economic future without the prison is, for many Standish residents, more frightening than any vague future terrorism threat.

Recommended: Where do things stand at Guantánamo? Six basic questions answered.

The result is that the city government and many residents are pleased that their close-knit community is on the Obama administration's shortlist as a place to secure at least some of the 228 Guantánamo detainees.

Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, home of the military's only maximum-security prison, is also believed to be under consideration, and it's not known if officials are considering other sites as well.

"We'll persevere and get through it," Mayor Kevin King says of the prison closing. "Getting the detainees," he adds, "would probably make it easier to get through it."

When picturing a site to house suspected jihadists, a camping and fishing haven near Lake Huron is probably not the first image to spring to mind. But local officials point to the prison's 19-year flawless record housing "some really bad actors," in City Manager Michael Moran's words. Taking Guantánamo detainees wouldn't be so different, they say.

"I have no fears of [the detainees'] coming in here. We won't see them," says Ruth Caldwell, owner of Pleasantries Giftshop and vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. "We have had some nasty people there. The guards have done a marvelous job of keeping the community safe. Other than the glow at night, you'd never know [the prison] is there."

In recent interviews, some people did express concern about potential safety issues arising from housing such infamous inmates. But most said that they saw a terrorist attack on their town as a remote possibility and that the biggest threat to the city is economic.

Arenac County already is struggling under a 25 percent unemployment rate. "That's a Depression-era economy," says Mr. Moran. That's before Standish's largest employer is slated to close Oct. 1, which would end 340 prison jobs.

One-quarter of the city budget ($36,000 a month) comes from the prison's water and sewer bill, and the city must repay bonds taken out when the prison was built in 1990. Standish is also concerned about losing as many as 100 children from the schools, as correctional officers leave to work at other prisons. If the prison shuts down entirely, the impact on area restaurants and retailers could be devastating, adds Moran.

"It could break this town," says Mary Ann Pelton, owner of Standish Bakery and Restaurant, which her father bought in 1937. Ms. Pelton opposes bringing in detainees from Guantánamo and says many of her older clientele are concerned about security.

She and others hope another use can be found for the prison. Those hopes were blunted Aug. 18, when California declined to send prisoners from its overcrowded facilities to Standish Max. But Pennsylvania has also expressed interest, and it's possible that the federal government will purchase Standish Max to house federal inmates.

"There's a lot of fears in Standish right now. It's almost like we're reliving what we went through 19 years ago" with the decision to open the prison, says Mayor King, who was born in Standish and teaches at the high school. A lot of people then were opposed as well, but the prison has molded itself to the community and been a "fantastic neighbor," the mayor says. Indeed, no one interviewed wanted to see it go, and businesses all along M-61 sport "Save Standish Max" signs.

It's human nature to be somewhat afraid, King says, given what happened to the World Trade Center. But facts on the ground are less sensational than are being portrayed, he says, noting that the United States has imprisoned several hundred international terrorists on its soil since 1993, with no incidents. He isn't impressed by protests from outsiders who have never toured the prison. "This is not a county jail," King says.

The prison is currently configured to hold about 600 inmates. Of these, up to 176 could live in two buildings where they are confined 23 hours a day to their cells, which are equipped with two food slots that can also be used to put leg irons on an inmate inside.

Federal officials visited Standish Max on Aug. 14 to assess its suitability for holding the detainees. Local officials say they were gratified by the feedback.

"I met the warden for Guantánamo Bay at a meeting," says Moran. "I asked him directly what he thought of his visit to our prison.... He said if he could pick up our prison and put it in the middle of Gitmo, it would be ideal. That pretty well says it all."

Still, there's high-level opposition to the idea. Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R) of Michigan have resisted bringing detainees to the state. "The governor has expressed concerns, and until those concerns are addressed, she doesn't favor moving the detainees to Michigan," said Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd, noting that there's been no word from Washington since the Aug. 14 visit.

County Commissioner Joseph Sancimino also opposes the detainee option, but for him, security isn't the issue. He wants a plan that will save the most local jobs. The detainees, if they come, will be guarded by military police. While there may be some contract jobs that current correctional officers could apply for, in practice, he says, that will mean "an experienced prison guard getting a job pushing a broom."

He's also among the few who seem worried that an influx of 1,000 or so new residents, as military families move in, would almost double the population and alter Standish's small-town character.

While residents offered various opinions as to the best course of action to secure the city's future, they acknowledge that Standish itself will have little say in what ultimately happens with the prison.

"This is a decision that will be made between Lansing and Washington," says King.

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