Prison reopening in Lake Co. ‘an answer to a prayer’


WEBBER TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s not often that a prison brings hope, but it does when it’s a prison being reopened in one of the poorest places in Michigan.

“This is an answer to prayer,” said Pastor Rich Rybka, former chaplain at the North Lake Correctional Facility that’s been closed for two years.

The GEO Group, Inc., which owns the nearly 1,800-bed prison, plans to reopen it in October to house criminally sentenced illegal immigrants for the federal government. The private Florida-based company says the federal contract will mean $37 million a year in revenue.

Wednesday, the former chaplain drove up to see the site.

“It’s a good feeling to see vehicles in the parking lot, and I just told my wife we need to go in and see some life at the prison,” Rybka said.

Those cars were driven by people looking to fill 300 jobs, from corrections officer to clerks to nurses to the warden. For corrections officers, the jobs will pay $17 an hour.

So far, 530 people had already applied online. Another 180 people walked in Tuesday for the first of a three-day job fair, coordinated with help from the Michigan Works Association.

“It’s time,” Rybka said. “We’ve been praying for prosperity to come into this county.”

Lake County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, at 7.6%. The county’s median household income is $20,000 a year less than the state average, U.S. Census figures show.

“People are excited,” said GEO Human Resources manager Nicole Moody. “They’re excited we’re bringing employment back into the community.”

Moody said GEO is focusing on hiring in and around Lake County, though it has advertised elsewhere, including on a billboard along U.S. 131 in Grand Rapids.

“We’re going to continue to look at the (Lake) county first,” Moody said. “That’s why we’re doing the job fair here, at the facility.”

The private prison opened in 1998 to house juvenile offenders for the state. The so-called “punk prison” closed in 2005. It reopened and closed since then, housing prisoners from Vermont and California. It’s been closed since June 2017.

“We’re seeing a lot of those individuals that have worked for us in the past return back and reapply for those positions here at the facility,” Moody said.

The North Lake Correctional Facility will be one of 12 prisons in the nation run by private companies to house sentenced criminal illegal immigrants for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

GEO said it has a 10-year contract to run the prison.

For Becky Wilkinson, her new job at the prison means no more hour-and-15 minute commute to work in Muskegon.

“It’s a 10-year contract and it will take me up until I retire,” she said.

Kristina Trim, who works at a Subway sandwich shop, applied for a corrections officer job on Wednesday and got an offer.

“I’m so happy that this opened, because so many people are going to be able to have jobs that they need to survive,” she said.

GEO’s job fair continues Thursday. The company will hold another job fair at the prison next week.

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