TV6 Investigates: Ojibway Correctional Facility closure still felt 5 years later

TV6 Investigates the closure of an Upper Michigan prison and its lingering impact on the communities around five years later.
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 5:27 PM EDT
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GOGEBIC COUNTY, Mich. (WLUC) - The Ojibway Correctional Facility in Gogebic County closed five years ago this December, taking with it hundreds of jobs and more than 1,000 inmates from the area.

Now, a for-sale sign remains in front of the property just outside of the small communities of Marenisco and Wakefield, owned by the state but surrounded by question marks.

TV6′s Cody Boyer spent time in both of those communities, seeing the impact of what’s been left behind as those who still live and try to work in the area say they are experiencing a loss of economy of unprecedented levels.

“When it closed, it devastated our area,” said Bruce Mahler, Marenisco Township supervisor. “This is one of the best places to live.”

The unincorporated community of Marenisco has always been small, something Mahler says he has seen firsthand since he moved to town at the age of seven years old.

“I spent a career in the military but I came home because this is where I wanted to be,” Mahler said. “This is a place where everybody knows everybody.”

Yet, Mahler says a glance at the last two census results for Marenisco shows an ongoing problem well. According to the U.S. Census in 2010, Marenisco housed 254 people. In 2020, the number dropped to 174.

Mahler says the root of the drop lies behind barbed wire fencing just up the road from town.

“The town provided services to the prison, so our fire departments provided service, our police department, our ambulance service,” Mahler said. “We had lots of ambulance calls out there and the prison had I think around 240 jobs.”

Enter 2018: The Michigan Department of Corrections announced a need to cut $19 million from its annual budget and the department would have to close a prison that year, citing a declining state prison population. Mahler was the chief of police in Marenisco at the time.

“They were looking for places to cut funding to put into different programs and, ‘well, why not just take the farthest prison away from Lansing and then we don’t have to worry about it anymore?’” Mahler said. “I have two sons who worked there. One had just become a sergeant and one was a corrections officer.”

Mahler says the signs of time passing are visible from the closed front gate.

“You or I, we own our property,” Mahler said. “We have to cut our grass. We have to take care of everything. They don’t. Take a ride out there. Look at it. You’ll be disgusted at what they left behind.”

With that response, Cody went to the Michigan Department of Corrections to find out more.

The MDOC pointed him to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB), which is now responsible for the prison property.

In part of a statement from DTMB Director of Communications Laura Wotruba, she said:

“the former Ojibway Correctional Facility continues to be listed for sale on DTMB’s website, in addition to being listed on CoStar, a real estate listing service for commercial properties. DTMB continues to explore all possible avenues that could lead to sale of the property, including working with local officials to get the word out.”

Wotruba also says DTMB has and continues to organize tours of the former prison to interested parties, working closely with the MDOC.

Lawmakers like Senator Ed McBroom say they’d been watching the process over time and still are.

“You’re left with virtually a ghost town in some places,” said McBroom.

“It’s sad,” McBroom continued. “It’s frustrating. The people who live there say ‘why are you doing this?’ and the state offers little to no justification or even outright lies. In particular, corrections’ lies about recidivism and basically hoisting their prisoners into our county jails.”

McBroom was a part of a senate bill that led to the For Sale sign, allowing the state to sell the property.

McBroom and Mahler both say the state removed the site’s wastewater treatment system, making the site no longer viable for sale.

“When you lose these, you just create an enormous ripple effect that consumes a community, and the state promised that they were going to be a good partner with this closure, which is hard to take considering they weren’t being a good partner in doing the closure, and it’s been very slow,” McBroom says.

The population trickle, McBroom and Mahler both say, goes further. Taking a look at Gogebic County as a whole, the county’s population was 15,116 in 2018. Five years later, that dropped 5.27% to 14,319.

The DTMB says the search for the next owner is ongoing, adding “the site is a unique property, and we would love to connect with the right buyer for it.”

Until then, Mahler says the community is hopeful but skepticism, he adds, is hard to shake.

“We’ve done it on our own,” Mahler said. “We’ll continue to do it on our own but we don’t look for anything from them because they’ve given us nothing.”