Midstate cities seek new tenants for old prisons

mlee@macon.comJanuary 23, 2013 

ATLANTA -- Vacant Middle Georgia prisons must seek new missions or face dereliction, as the state moves to limit prison population growth.

The Georgia Department of Corrections has returned some $6 million to the state because a plan fell through to renovate the old Bostick State Prison on the Central State Hospital campus in Milledgeville and convert it into an inmate nursing home.

It was supposed to be a facility for inmates at the end of their lives or who have severe Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, Corrections Department Commissioner Brian Owens said during state budget hearings Wednesday. But there was not a large enough patient population, it turns out.

“We could not make the business model work” that would have allowed a private vendor to operate the home on Medicaid funding, he said.

The Corrections Department owns four closed prisons on the campus as well as the active Baldwin State Prison.

Some might need to be demolished, said Owens, because they date back to the 1930s, when they housed a state mental hospital.

“They were never really designed to be prison facilities,” he said.

Demolition is one possibility among many, said Mike Couch, executive director of the Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority.

“We need to come up with a master plan for the whole campus,” said Couch. “We need to understand what our assets are.”

There are more than 200 buildings on the site, including the Georgia War Veterans Home.

A draft plan may be published within about three months, Couch said. And future tenants could be public or private entities.

The city of Butler in Taylor County has a similar problem: the vacant 200-bed Western Probation Detention Center.

“It’s still a state facility,” said state Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Reynolds. “We really need that revenue.”

The center was one of the biggest customers of Butler’s water department. When it shut down, Bentley said, higher costs fell back on taxpayers.

It’s up to the Department of Corrections, within a budget set by the Legislature, to figure out what to do with the Butler building.

Last year, the Georgia Legislature got tired of the cost of locking up nearly 56,000 people, a number that is rising. Lawmakers made it harder for prosecutors to get convictions of certain felonies, by raising the maximum sums that can be shoplifted or stolen and still merit a misdemeanor charge.

According to a December 2012 follow-up report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, the prison population is holding steady and a backlog of people waiting for space in probation detention centers is shrinking fast.

“I’d love to take the money we’re saving ... and invest it into addiction treatment and mental health treatment for those low-level offenders,” Owens said.

That may be something for Butler to think about.

The building is the same prototype that the Department of Corrections uses for residential substance abuse treatment facilities, Owens said.

The state House and Senate will weigh and tweak Gov. Nathan Deal’s draft budget in the coming weeks. They have 36 more non-consecutive working days to finalize a budget for the year that will begin in July.

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