Maine considers private prison bill

Posted Feb. 06, 2011, at 2:56 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 06, 2011, at 6:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Prospects of building a privately run prison in the economically depressed town of Milo appear to be gaining momentum with a new administration in the State House and legislation being prepared to pave the way for such a project.

Republican Sen. Douglas Thomas’ bill has yet to be fleshed out, but it’s clearly aimed at authorizing a prison in the Piscataquis County town of about 2,400, which has a double-digit unemployment rate and has been buffeted by a loss of businesses not to mention devastating fire in 2008 that wiped out a third of its downtown.

“If there’s a chance of getting 100 good-paying jobs, I’m interested,” said Thomas of Ripley.

Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan acknowledges the idea has its supporters as well as opponents, but he sees nothing else on the horizon that would restore jobs that bring livable wages to the town.

“With the new leadership in Augusta, we felt that a private prison would be looked at as an economic opportunity,” said Gahagan.

When discussions with Corrections Corporation of America began about three years ago, the company talked about the possibility of building a $100 million to $150 million facility, housing 1,800 to 2,300 inmates and employing 200 to 300 people. With the new administration, CCA dusted off its plan and is open to new discussions, said Gahagan.

“At some point in the future, we’d like to put this on a faster track … so we can move this thing forward,” said Gahagan.

A private prison would bring in more than just corrections officers jobs, he said. There also would be a need for people in such fields as food service and medical care. There is even talk of starting up a biomass power plant in connection with a facility, Gahagan said.

Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, agrees the political shift has brought new interest in the project, which he believes lost steam during the previous administration after Democratic Gov. John Baldacci proposed moving scores of state prisoners to privately run institutions located out of state. The proposal received a frosty reception in the Legislature, which abruptly scuttled it.

Since then, Gov. Paul LePage has nominated for corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has held administrative positions in several other states’ public systems and who also has worked for Corrections Corporation of America since 2006. Ponte’s appointment is awaiting legislative review.

LePage emphasized that Ponte’s nomination should not be taken as a sign of his administration’s interest in privatizing Maine’s system. But he also said he would be open to allowing a private-sector prison company to come to Maine, build a facility, pay taxes and house other states’ prisoners.

The idea of inviting a prison as an economic development tool isn’t new to northern New England. In New Hampshire, Berlin residents voted in 2002 in favor of a proposal to bring in a federal prison, in hopes of replacing jobs in a region where major employers have shut down in recent years.

The new prison is expected to open in Berlin this summer. Of the 330 workers to be employed there, about 200 will come from New Hampshire while the rest would be brought in from other federal prisons.

Some of the excitement about the prison has faded since 2002 because of strict requirements for the jobs, such as hiring employees before they turn 37.

In Maine, a Democratic lawmaker, Rep. John Tuttle of Sanford, warned that things “can go from very good to very bad” quickly when profit is a driving force in running an institution housing people.

“The problem is, if they’re working on a profit motive, what will happen with prisoners in the system,” said Tuttle, who is sponsoring a bill requiring all Maine inmates to be in public correctional facilities.

Lawmakers also will consider several other corrections-related bills this session, including proposals addressing county jail-state prison consolidation, transfers of prisoners out of state, treatment of prisoners and limited parole.

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