Written by By Adam Schleifer, CNN
Meijer (www.meijer.com), a long-standing Catholic company in Michigan, promotes a love of giving back to the community through its Christian mission. In recent years, however, it’s taken an alternate step: building jails to be filled by people like its employees.
That’s right: the company itself has become a prison.
“All of the stories we read are accounts of churches renting space to house inmates, and one time it was a clothing store. When a family member of a family of a family member of a family member who was in a prison were getting called to appear before a judge on a criminal charge,” said William Tomko, who serves as Meijer’s corporate ethics and compliance director.
“So there’s a willingness to open their doors to a public purpose, like a jail or a clothing store, and we want to continue to do that.”
This past November, it held an invitation-only promotional event dubbed the “Blended Retreat” in Traverse City, Michigan, to celebrate its work to build two 70-bed jails — the country’s first — on its property in Michigan and Indiana.
Signs that real work is going on in the facility. Credit: Adam Schleifer/CNN
The 350-acre property in Indiana — the country’s third largest — which was selected by the Michigan Legislature for its location. The two jails cost $143 million, $10 million of which Meijer was directly responsible for.
A photo of an old diesel engine and two large parts on the parking lot that allegedly were the original ones from the father’s two-cylinder WWII-era car. Credit: Adam Schleifer/CNN
“In the way that we view it, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Richard Trotter, Meijer’s senior vice president of public affairs and communications. “There’s not a lot of public-private partnerships like this left in the country.
“We’ll consider this success if the facilities make a positive contribution to the local communities.”
Meijer — which was founded by Dutch immigrants in 1919 — claims that the jail facilities have helped curb crime rates in both the Michigan and Indiana locations. They also say that they employ some 1,200 people full-time, nearly all of whom are referred from the local jail system, not inmates.
Build the concept, sell the results
“When they were done, they were very successful,” said Tomko. “We spoke to the police, and the complaints they had were people who were arrested, but had no idea how to deal with the court process. So this is something a bit different.
Work continues on the first jail. Credit: Adam Schleifer/CNN
“The good news is that as soon as the jails are built and the inmates were housed in them, crime rates went down. The Justice Department has cited some crime statistics, in terms of crimes and sentences, and the prisons are actually shrinking.”
Nonetheless, critics argue that Meijer is doing too much for too many people at the expense of taxpayers.
“Meijer has proven there is a model that results in the most rapid outcomes for you,” said Bob Blaxill, who heads up the organization Change The Land, which advocates for sustainable land-use policies and education.
“The problem is that Meijer has the capability to build jails and it has the capacity to hire people from the prison systems to manage them. It’s a no-brainer that says if you really want to do good, don’t build jails.”
Clay Jacobson — the interim executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan, which opposes Meijer’s use of tax dollars to build prisons — was skeptical of the company’s work in Indiana.
“These are questions of good and evil,” said Jacobson. “We do have policies in Michigan of putting no profit motive toward prisons. I’m not sure it’s productive to public policy to say when you build a prison, you have to fill it with jobs in your community. Where is the balance that we’ll accept?”