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.
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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.