Southfield, Mich., may utilize private security firm to run city lockup

The City of Southfield is considering hiring a private company to operate its prisoner lock-up services rather than pay an additional $700,000-plus for the Oakland County Sheriff's Office to run the facility.

Though it's not clear whether other cities in Michigan have private companies running their lockups, experts said it's a move that is becoming increasingly popular in policing and courtroom security across the country, particularly as municipalities face increasingly tighter budgets and state revenue sharing funds continue to dwindle.

Tom Hendrickson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said he hasn't heard of any cities contracting with private firms.

"Anytime we can save money, we look at alternative methods."

In Southfield, the sheriff's office has run the city's lockup for nearly three decades, booking an average of 3,300 prisoners a year, according to a city report. The sheriff's office also oversees five cell blocks that house up to 68 prisoners serving sentences of up to one year.

It was a situation that worked for years. But, to offset budget cuts, the sheriff's office now wants $1.2 million to run the jail -- up from nearly $500,000 the city had been paying this year. The contract expires June 30.

The city is considering Wackenhut Corp., an international security company based in Florida, to run its lockup, where inmates are held for up to 72 hours while awaiting processing, booking or court or before being transported to a jail.

The company has offered to run the facility for roughly $734,000 a year.

"Private policing is the fastest growing entity in policing right now," Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas said.

The City Council, which has to approve the contract, is likely to take up the issue next month.

Rae Townsel, the city's purchasing agent, said Wackenhut already provides security services for Southfield's 46th District Court and Detroit's 36th District Court. A spokesman for Wackenhut confirmed that the company also runs a city lockup in Irvine, Calif.

For a few years, Trenton hired a company to provide security in its full-service jail, but the facility was still run by city officers, Deputy Police Chief James Nardonne said. He said the city closed its jail in 2001 and now runs only a 72-hour lockup.

Michael LaFaive, director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center, said privatizing is becoming an attractive option for municipalities since the cities don't have to pay for health care or retirement costs, or deal with unions.