TV6 Investigates: Community copes 5 years after Ojibway Correctional Facility closure

Former Ojibway Correctional Facility worker, Gogebic County schools live on despite loss of prison.
TV6's Cody Boyer spoke with a man who now must commute hundreds of miles every week and the school superintendent to see how the community continues to feel the
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 3:59 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - TV6 continues to investigate the closure of an Upper Michigan prison.

In the first half of our investigation, we broke down the closure of the Ojibway Correctional Facility in Gogebic County, which once employed more than 200 people and housed more than 1,100 prisoners.

Five years later, many who used to work at the prison continued to live in the area but were forced to find jobs elsewhere to make ends meet.

TV6′s Cody Boyer spoke with a man who worked at the Ojibway Correctional Facility. He now must commute hundreds of miles every week for work at another prison.

“I’ve gotten to know the roads pretty well, every little nook and cranny,” said Kelly Dunbar, a lifelong resident of Marenisco.

For Dunbar, Marenisco has been home for all 47 years of his life.

“It’s small,” Dunbar said. “The family-type atmosphere of everyone, the lack of people. I don’t like the hustle and bustle.”

Dunbar said he remembers the Ojibway Correctional Facility as his first job out of college and worked there for all 18 years of its operation.

“I dove in,” Dunbar said. “I started as an officer, I worked my way up. I got to wear fancy clothes and stuff like that. It was my plan: stay there until the end.”

Until Aug. 14, 2018, when the Michigan Department of Corrections announced the closure of the $19 million prison.

“We had been rumored to be closing once or twice before and it went through, and it came and went,” Dunbar said. “When we started hearing that it was going to close down that time, it was like ‘here we go again’ until the day they showed up at the door. That was kind of devastating. That was a bad day. There was a trickle-down. There were a lot of people from the area that worked there. A lot of them had to leave town so we lost residents there. There were families. We didn’t just lose the ones that worked there, we lost their whole family.”

Now, Dunbar works at the state prison in Baraga an hour and a half away. Dunbar said the price of staying in Marenisco after losing his position at the correctional facility has started to add up. He commutes to his current job nearly 90 miles every morning and drives the same distance back home after work every single day, four days a week.

“I got to go from a six and a half minute drive to an hour drive,” Dunbar said. “Just like that.”

Cody also spoke to an area school superintendent to see how the community continues to feel the impact.

“My first panic was okay, ‘how many families do I have working out there?’” said Jason Gustafson, superintendent of the Wakefield-Marenisco School District.

The closure changed life for many others, including school families.

“Student funding right now is the highest that it’s ever been,” Gustafson said. “We are looking at around $9,800 per student. Back when this started in 2018, we were probably around the $8,000 range so $8,000, if we were to have lost 20 students, that’s $160,000 off of your budget.”

Gustafson said in rural school districts like his, each student counts.

“There were 13 families that had and accounted for 23 kids,” Gustafson said. “The student population was about 280 at the time so, with rough math, you are looking at close to 10 percent of your kids who could have been leaving. We did find out only one student was leaving, so for the district, that was excellent news. Not for the families that had to move, though, but that eased my [overall] worries a bit, for the moment.”

That was good news, Gustafson said, considering what could have happened.

“That’s huge,” Gustafson said. “Our annual fund balance is usually less than $500,000 so if we lost 20 kids, which thank goodness we did not, a hit of $120,000 out of $500,000, it doesn’t give you too many years and you are going to be belly-up.”

Lawmakers like McBroom say there is hope.

“I’m not saying we haven’t had some successes,” said McBroom.

In 2022, he said legislation helped secure $20 million for the revitalization of the Copper Peak ski jump facility nearby, which has the potential to generate $50 million in tourism revenue for the region.

He also said there’s hope in developments like the Highland Copper Company mine and the Copperwood Project, which would bring jobs back to Gogebic County.

“Copper Peak, we were able to get funding for,” McBroom said. “That’s starting to roll forward and I’m optimistic about its future. The Highland Mine site, the Copperwood project, it sounds like we are going to get some really good news on that in the really near future. Seeing Highland Copper bring 500, 600 jobs for 40 years in the future, that’s the real meat and potatoes that’s been the success story of the U.P. for a long time.”

McBroom’s optimism is shared, at length, by Gustafson and Dunbar.

“I won’t take it for granted until the day the mine opens to be honest with you,” Gustafson said. “Hopeful, but not utterly optimistic.”

“I’ve got a lot of people beat because I’ve got a good job,” Dunbar said. “I am able to support myself and do stuff like that. I may have to travel a ways to do it. It makes it a little more expensive, especially gas the way it is these days. Don’t ever take anything for granted, you know?”

The DTMB says they are currently facilitating more tours of the facility.

For more information on this investigation, click here.