AUGUSTA, Maine — Two conflicting bills about transferring Maine prisoners out of state will each get a hearing Friday morning.
One bill would require a Maine prisoner’s permission before the Department of Corrections could send him out of state. The other would allow the Department of Corrections to transfer Maine prisoners for any reason and facilitate the construction of private prisons in Maine.
LD 690, “An Act To Amend the Laws Governing the Transfer of Prisoners to Other States,” aims to restrict the prison system’s ability to freely transfer prisoners by forcing the state to get an inmate’s written consent to the move and by allowing the prisoner to return to Maine after one year if he chooses. Also, the measure would apply retroactively to any Maine prisoner now housed out of state against his will.
But according to a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, a compromise has been worked out between the organization and the department’s commissioner, Joseph Ponte. Prisoner advocate Ron Huber of Rockland said the plan is to ask the legislative committee to throw out LD 690 entirely and instead enact a new policy for the department. Under the proposed policy, the Maine Department of Corrections would have to periodically review the status of all out-of-state prisoners and would have to provide “fair procedures” for a prisoner to request a transfer back to Maine.
“What it basically does is put some time frames on the review process,” Associate Commissioner Jody Breton said Thursday afternoon.
Aside from the time elements, the policy is largely what the department already does, according to Breton.
The proposed policy includes specific guidelines for transferring a prisoner. Allowable reasons to transfer an inmate would be limited to: if the prisoner cannot safely be confined in Maine, if the prisoner could receive better medical or psychiatric treatment out of state, or if the prisoner requests the transfer. This is what the department already does, Breton said.
“What we wanted was transparency and responsibility. Those were the key things missing from this system,” said Huber, “the transparency, and a clear-cut guide of how to get back. It gives the person being shipped out a way to bring themselves back and a clear paper trail. I feel the commissioner is an honest man, and he’s willing to give this a shot.”
If the policy does not work, the prisoner advocates can try a bill similar to LD 690 next year, Huber said.
LD 690’s sponsor, Rep. Ralph Chapman, D-Brooksville, said Thursday evening he will ask the legislative committee to transform his bill into a resolve that would tell the Department of Corrections to use the proposed policy and then report back to the legislative committee in a year.
Maine has about 30 prisoners out of state, and about 10 of them would benefit from the bill, Huber estimates, based on a survey he conducted. Others wanted to remain out of state for various reasons.
The other bill, LD 1095, “An Act To Facilitate the Construction and Operation of Private Prisons by Authorizing the Transport of Prisoners out of State,” is being brought forward by Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Somerset.
“One of the towns I represent, Milo, has been in conversation with Corrections Corporations of America and they expressed an interest in building a private prison there. It was my understanding that they needed this legislation to clear the way,” Thomas said. “I wanted at least to have the option.”
Thomas also said because Maine has one of the highest per-prisoner costs in the nation, “maybe we need to look at other options.”
Thomas said the current policies are largely dictated by an interstate compact that generally involves Maine sending one prisoner out and in return, taking one prisoner from another state that needs to move an inmate. “This frees that up,” he said. “It gives the DOC more alternatives.”
Associate Commissioner Breton said the Maine Department of Corrections has not taken a stand on this bill yet.
“We’re not over capacity so we don’t need bed space. I’m not sure where the commissioner wants us to land on this bill,” she said Thursday.
Both bills will be discussed at the Criminal Justice and Public Safety legislative committee’s hearing Friday morning. A live audio feed will be available at: maine.gov/legis/audio/crj_cmte.html.