June 20, 2018
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Charleston prison cuts on hold until June 30

George Peterson (left), plant maintenance engineer for Charleston Correctional Facility, and Capt. Doug Starbird, the facility’s security chief, walk outside the facility’s Dorm III last year.
By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

CHARLESTON, Maine — A reprieve of six months has been given to 45 inmates who would have been relocated and to 15 employees whose jobs were to be eliminated at the Charleston Correctional Facility under Gov. John Baldacci’s jail consolidation plan.

Recognizing the importance of the restitution program offered at the minimum-security prison and the need for a long-range corrections plan, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee searched for and found about $560,000 in cuts in other programs to keep the unit targeted for closure at Charleston in operation until June 30, the end of this fiscal year.

The Appropriations Committee accepted the committee’s plan Tuesday, according to Rep. Richard Sykes of Harrison, the Republican leader on the committee.

“It’s no additional cost. It’s a shifting of monies and they [the Appropriations Committee] felt that our justification and reason was appropriate and they’ve accepted that,” Sykes said Wednesday.

To help offset a $140 million shortfall in state revenues, the governor announced in December that he planned to close a dormitory at the Charleston facility and eliminate 15 local jobs. That move would mean the relocation of 45 of the 145 inmates housed there, Denise Lord, the Department of Corrections’ deputy commissioner, said last month. The changes at Charleston would save about $1 million a year, she said.

Overall, the governor’s proposed supplemental budget included a total reduction of 24 positions in corrections, Lord said. In addition to the positions at Charleston, the cuts included two probation officers, two juvenile community corrections posts and two positions in the office of advocacy.

According to Sykes, the governor is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. In essence, Sykes added, Baldacci is making decisions about closures or changes in the corrections system before the Board of Corrections — established last February to oversee correctional operations in Maine — has completed its long-range plan and recommendations.

“We charged them [the Board of Corrections] with the responsibility of coming up with a better way and a future plan to run the corrections system in a unified manner. Unfortunately, the governor’s supplemental budget supersedes that charge,” Sykes said. “I believe that we need to give the Board of Corrections an opportunity and time to come up with some suggestions and recommendations.” In the meantime, the committee has asked the board to “hurry up” and finish the long-range plan, he said.

Sykes said the committee heard from many people opposed to the Charleston cuts.

“The transitional unit at Charleston [is] an outstanding program,” Sykes said. He said the program, in which inmates provide volunteer work for communities and nonprofit organizations, helps prepare inmates for life after prison. Rather than give the inmates $50 and a new suit before they are released, the program gives them vocational and social skills, he said.

To find the savings to keep the Charleston unit open for the remainder of the fiscal year, the committee recommended the elimination of the Department of Corrections’ chief advocate and another advocate in Warren, where the Maine State Prison is located. Those positions also were targeted for elimination in Baldacci’s plan.

The committee also recommended the elimination of a department leadership training program, according to Sykes. About $65,000 was targeted from the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s stream monitoring program. The program, which is an early warning system for floods, has typically been funded entirely by the state. But now state funds will be matched by federal money, resulting in no program loss, Sykes said.

Charleston officials also came forward with a way to save $100,000, Sykes said. The prison runs on wood harvested by inmates on state property for the first and second shifts. The third shift has been heated with oil, but employees have offered to volunteer their time to keep that shift heated with wood.

“Through the goodness of some of the staff at the Charleston Correctional Facility, they are willing to volunteer to work that third shift to continue heating the entire facility 24 hours a day with wood,” Sykes said.

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