The Prison Walls are Coming Down
The razor wire is still atop the chain link fence at Cassidy Lake Correctional Facility, but not for long. Most of the former minimum-security prison buildings have already been razed, and it won’t be long before the former work camp is completely gone.
Located five miles northwest of Chelsea, the facility was first constructed in 1937 as Cassidy Lake Technical School, sponsored by the National Youth Administration of Michigan. The NYA was a Federal New Deal program focusing on education and vocational training for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25.
The school’s 85 acres are located in the Waterloo State Recreation Area, which was formed a few years earlier in the early 1930s. Area farms were failing at an alarming rate. The Federal Resettlement Administration was created to purchase the farmlands from the banks and move the farmers to the cities for a better chance at steady income. The land was designated for recreation in 1934 as the Waterloo Recreation Demonstration Area. The National Park Service planted over 350,000 trees on the former farmland. The government spent over $2 million preparing Waterloo for recreation.
Cassidy Lake Technical School flourished for a few years. The January 26, 1939, Chelsea Standard boasted, “Cassidy Lake is the site of the NYA’s greatest project in Michigan—one of the nation’s 14 major regional work centers. Over 160 unemployed young men, 18 to 21 years old, from all parts of the state live here.”
In 1942, the Federal Government deemed Waterloo Rec as surplus land and abandoned it and the vocational school. The Michigan Dept of Natural Resources took over the land. The Michigan Dept of Corrections (MDOC) assumed control of the camp. Effective January 1944, MDOC converted the former technical school into Cassidy Lake Honor Camp for young offenders.
The correctional facility’s mission was “rehabilitation through education.” Officials saw that most convicts ages 17 to 22 lacked the education and training to get a job for an honest living. The goal was to have every inmate leave with a GED and vocational skills.
The camp had no fence. The young men were trusted on their honor to remain. The idea being it would lift their self-esteem to be trusted. Many inmates saw it as an easy escape. However, those inmates who did walk off and were caught were sent to prison.
Eight months into the new initiative, the August 10, 1944, Chelsea Standard declared, “All of these men have returned to and are filling their rightful places in society. The officials who have pioneered and fought for this form of correction are justly proud of this fine record.”
The program was not without controversy, mainly because inmates regularly walked away. Many returned to the petty crimes that got them there in the first place, which often got them apprehended again and, this time, sent to prison. A few committed more severe crimes, such as murder.
By 1979, there was still no fence. Gerrit C. Hasper, State Rep for the 96th District, wrote a letter to the editor of the Chelsea Standard calling for, among other things, a fence to be put around the correctional facility or have it relocated.
In 1980, the Cassidy Lake Community Relations Council was formed. Community leaders regularly met with prison officials to address facility issues such as overcrowding, increasing the number of guards, various preventive measures for escape, and a fence.
A fence was installed.
In 1988, Cassidy Lake became a Special Alternative Incarceration Facility (SAI), “an alternative to prison for male probationers convicted of certain crimes and selected by courts.” MDOC describes it as “a regimented 90-day intensive program that focuses on changing negative behavior into socially acceptable behavior. The military discipline portion f the program is designed to break down streetwise attitudes, so staff can teach positive values and attitudes.”
The facility continued to age with little money to keep it up. A five-year assessment plan completed in 2019 showed a need for $3 million for just basic repairs. In January 2020, the MDOC announced the SAI program at Cassidy Lake would be consolidated and relocated to its parent location at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson by March 7.
The facilities are being demolished. Then what?
There’s talk of the land being turned over to the DNR. That makes sense since it is in Waterloo Rec already, but the DNR has not responded to repeated requests to verify this information or its intentions if it is returned to state land. Other gossip says some local leaders would like to see it made into a park. There’s talk of still others wanting it to go back to nature. But it is all talk at this point.
So, until we know, we just don’t know.
Chelsea Standard Archives, Chelsea District Library
“Facts Concerning Cassidy Lake Technical School. University of Michigan (Google Books). 12-15-37.
National Youth Administration. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture (Way Back Machine Internet Archive).
“Waterloo: Tales from the Past, part II.” Chelsea Update. 6-29-14.
Michigan Dept of Corrections. Michigan.gov/corrections
MDNR General Management Plan for Waterloo Recreation Area