Private prison issue to be probed in Pittsfield

Posted April 08, 2011, at 10:40 p.m.

PITTSFIELD, Maine — The prospect of building private prisons in Maine will be the subject of a community forum Sunday in Pittsfield.

Trudy Ferland of Pittsfield said she had never thought much about the issue until she heard some recent news reports about incarceration levels in Maine and the United States. Most abhorrent, she said, is the concept of people making profits by keeping others in jail.

“As I looked into it, I just felt like I wanted to share the story,” said Ferland. “The whole idea behind this forum is to show people how the private prison issue affects everyone. The numbers are horrifying when you look at them.”

The forum will consist of a presentation by Ferland and time for discussion. The event, which begins at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Pittsfield Public Library, will precede a meeting of the Somerset County Democratic Committee. Ferland is a member of the committee and the Democratic chairwoman for the town of Pittsfield.

Feeding Ferland’s fire is a bill under consideration in the Legislature that would allow the construction of private prisons in Maine and for Maine prisoners to be housed in private prisons in other states. The bill, known in legislative parlance as LD 1095, An Act To Facilitate the Construction and Operation of Private Prisons by Authorizing the Transport of Prisoners Out of State, has been referred to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee but has so far not been addressed. It is sponsored by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley.

As written, the bill would permit the construction of private prisons in Maine as long as the Department of Corrections allows Maine prisoners to be housed in private prisons in other states. Former Gov. John Baldacci proposed sending prisoners to private prisons outside Maine in a 2009 budget bill, but that provision died in the Legislature with strong opposition by Democrats.

Gov. Paul LePage has voiced his support for building private prisons in Maine since before he was elected, framing it as a jobs-creating economic development issue.

Somerset County Democratic Committee Secretary Joan Bradley of Detroit said part of the reason for hosting Sunday’s talk is to make sure Democrats’ voices aren’t drowned out by the Republican majorities in the State House.

“We’re feeling kind of behind the eight ball,” she said. “We want people to know what the Democrats stand for.”

Ferland said a second forum on private prisons is planned for 7 p.m. May 5 at the First Universalist Church in Pittsfield. That event, which is part of a new issues-oriented speaker series, will be hosted by Eric Mehnert, a civil rights attorney based in Bangor.

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