WARREN, Maine — An acute shortage of guards at the Maine State Prison led officials to move 40 inmates last week to the Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan, a decision that is causing some prisoners and their families distress and confusion.
Although Thursday’s move had been scheduled for “quite some time,” according to Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Denise Lord, the mother of one inmate said that prisoners weren’t given any warning or allowed to bring their personal items with them.
“He was very distraught and had high anxiety,” Cathy Pinkham of Bridgton said Monday about her son, Tyson Andrews. “They were just flipping them out of there like pancakes.”
Pinkham said she has lodged a complaint with Gov. John Baldacci’s office about the treatment of her son and the other 39 prisoners.
According to Lord, 183 state prison inmates are now being lodged in four county jails around the state. There are 63 state prison inmates housed at York County Jail, 26 at Cumberland County Jail and 54 at Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, according to the Department of Corrections Web site.
“The reason is that we don’t have sufficient beds or staff to accommodate all the prisoners in the state facilities,” she said.
Staffing at the Maine State Prison in Warren is down by more than 10 percent, she said, with 28 correctional officer and correctional sergeant positions that need to be filled. The state now has a hiring freeze because of budget shortfalls, and Maine State Prison positions vacant because of retirement, resignation, military leave and family medical leave cannot easily be filled, she said.
Additionally, three correctional officers were placed on paid administrative leave in early summer because of a Maine State Police investigation of inmate Sheldon Weinstein’s homicide in April, and they have yet to return to their duties, Lord said.
The state has a contract with the Somerset County Jail to house prisoners until June 30, 2010. The state will pay Somerset County $22 per day per prisoner, Lord said.
“It’s temporary. It’s not a long-term housing placement,” she said, adding that inmates likely would be able to get some of their personal property back after it goes through a security clearance process.
But Pinkham said that even a short-term housing change could be detrimental to inmates such as her son, who has served five years of an eight-year drug-related sentence and has been working hard in prison to turn his life around. He recently received his associate degree from the University of Maine at Augusta with help from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, run by Doris Buffett, the sister of businessman and philanthropist Warren Buffett.
“Given conditions and everyday social situations that prisoners face, we were able to rise up and look past the negativity in our environment to better ourselves and others around us,” Andrews wrote to the Bangor Daily News in July after his graduation ceremony.
Andrews, 28, wants to be an electrician upon his release and had requested to be moved to the state’s Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, where inmates nearing the end of their sentence have more opportunities to do vocational training, his mother said.
“Tyson did awesome,” she said of his educational efforts. “People in a facility who have worked themselves into a routine and have achieved an education — and then you take them and put them into an unknown county jail — what do they have to keep them motivated? … Tyson needs to be doing something. He’s somebody who has accomplished an associate’s degree in college. He’s already told them, ‘Please give me something to do. Don’t put me in the kitchen.’”
Lord said that prisoners who have been relocated to the county jails won’t automatically be knocked off the waiting list for Bolduc — which is commonly called the prison farm.
She also said that while prisoners are “always” being shifted around, the Thursday night exodus from Warren to Skowhegan won’t be repeated soon.
“There will not be a movement of this magnitude,” Lord said. “I don’t anticipate we’re going to see large movements of prisoners. Every facility is nearing capacity.”