The Indiana Department of Correction plans to close the state prison in Michigan City after a new, $1.2 billion prison facility was approved in early August by budget regulators.
That’s a change from the DOC’s previous plan to keep both the old and new prison sites open.
The Indiana Budget Committee on Aug. 4 gave the greenlight for the new prison on the site of the existing Westville Correctional Facility. DOC officials said the 4,200-bed site will combine and replace the Westville and Michigan City facilities.
“It’s outdated like Westville is, and it doesn’t come without emergency repairs on an annual basis totaling about $1 million to $2 million a year,” DOC Commissioner Christina Reagle said of the Michigan City prison.
She noted the state has more than $380 million in planned capital at the site already. Reagle said that, although closing the state prison wasn’t part of the original plan, doing so will save the state $45 million a year in operating costs.
The DOC said renovations of the existing prisons would not be cost effective and wouldn’t address many of the needs included in the new facility.
“The annual operating savings alone of closing the Indiana State Prison would create a payback of less than 20 years on this project, and we avoid nearly $400 million in capital asks,” she continued. “It just overall makes sense” to close the facility.
But some Democratic members of the state budget committee called into question the cost of the new prison project and expressed concerns about the abrupt decision to close the Michigan City site.
“I was on the Ways and Means Committee, and I don’t remember being advised that we were suddenly talking about two prisons rather than one prison,” state Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, said during the committee meeting. “This is a very interesting evolution, to say the least.”
Change of plans
The Westville project was originally approved in the 2021 biennial budget. The state legislature earmarked over $362 million then for a new facility, and an additional $800 million was approved in the latest budget approved earlier this year.
Indiana lawmakers and DOC officials said the increased price tag was attributed to inflation and supply chain challenges. The design of the new prison has not changed from 2021, however.
The Indiana State Prison originally opened in 1860 as the state’s second prison. State Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, who chairs the budget committee, said a visit to the facility earlier this summer “convinced” him that consolidating the prison into the new facility “is the right thing” to do.
He especially emphasized the expected cost savings, given that the current prison needs about $400 million in infrastructure improvements.
“We avoid that cost by combining the two prisons, closing the two and having it at one facility,” he said. “That’s what sold me.”
Reagle said the decision to add the Michigan City prison’s closure to the project was made just in the last few weeks.
She pointed to language in the new state budget, which appropriates the extra $800 million for “correctional facility upgrades,” rather than specifying it for replacement of the current Westville facility.
Thompson said Aug. 4 that the shift to “open language” in the budget intended to make a reevaluation of other facilities possible.
“I was insistent on that language. I wanted that broad because I knew there were other options we might look at in place of building a new Westville,” Thompson said, adding that he was “not on board” with $1.2 billion solely for replacement of the current Westville prison.
Pushback from Democrats
Still, some budget committee members questioned spending more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds on the new facility.
Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis, called the $800 million increase “extremely high,” and said he hoped the project finances would continue to be an “ongoing discussion.”
“We added $800 million to build one prison just for the cost of inflation,” Qaddoura said. “I still believe that $800 million of additional cost on any project should help us pause and rethink how we can move forward.”
Rep. Gregory Porter, D-Indianapolis, additionally called the appropriation “astronomical.”
“I’m just trying to watch the taxpayers’ money, make sure it’s done correctly,” he said.
Reagle maintained that Indiana is not the only state facing these kinds of costs for updated correctional facilities, though.
“The size of this facility contributes to the dollar amount,” Reagle said. “We’ve visited facilities of a similar size, and all of them have been about a billion dollars.”
What happens next
The new facility will include security upgrades, expanded health care and education services, recidivism programming and improved operational efficiency, Reagle said. There’s also a 24% increase from the current maximum of 3,400 inmates housed in the Westville facility, which first opened in 1951 as a state mental health facility before it was later converted into a prison.
About 416 people work at the Indiana State Prison — which is about 15 miles away from the WCF — and no jobs will be lost as a result of the consolidation, she added.
Once completed, the new Westville facility will be the largest in the state.
Reagle said the design work for the facility itself is 95% complete.
Construction on the new prison is anticipated to begin later this summer and take about four years to complete. Some site work — including sewer and water system connections — has already started, Reagle said.
As of May 1, there were 2,329 men incarcerated at the Indiana State Prison and 2,284 men in Westville, for a total of 4,523 inmates, according to the latest DOC report.
Reagle said prisoners will be moved to the new facility, or to other facilities in the state as needed, after the new prison opens.
The Indiana State Prison also houses Death Row where eight men await death, but the state doesn’t have the needed cocktail of drugs. Indiana hasn’t put a man to death since December 2009.
It’s still unclear what will happen with the former Westville and Michigan City facilities once the new prison building is operational.
Caption: A new prison will replace the current Westville and Michigan City prisons, making it the largest in the state. (Photo from the Indiana Department of Correction’s Facebook)
This story originally was published by the Indiana Capital Chronicle, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.