AUGUSTA, Maine — Supporters of a bill that would facilitate the construction of a $100 million private prison in Milo told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday that the area desperately needs the jobs its construction and operation would create.
Opponents argued that a prison should not be used as an economic development tool and cited studies that reportedly show private prisons do not save states money. Religious leaders opposed the bill on moral grounds.
The lobbyist for Corrections Corp. of America, which has been talking to Milo officials, said the company was neutral on LD 1095, but his answers to questions from committee members made some wonder whether the bill actually was needed before a private prison could be built in Piscataquis County.
“I don’t know much about prisons, but I do know about jobs and I know that the people I represent need more and better jobs,” said Sen. Douglas Thomas, R-Ripley, a sponsor of LD 1095. “I could pretend this bill is all about prisons, but it is really a jobs bill. It is time those of us in Augusta stopped pretending that everything is all right and started doing more to create a climate where the jobs we need can be created.
“I could pretend this bill is about reducing the high costs of running Maine prisons. And this committee knows better than anyone those costs are too high, and to some extent it is,” Thomas added. “This bill would provide other options that can be used to get those costs down. Let’s not pretend, because this bill is really about jobs for a town that desperately needs them.”
According to the summary section of the proposed legislation, the purpose of the bill is to facilitate construction and operation of private prisons by authorizing the commissioner of corrections to transport prisoners out of state to private or public facilities.
“Is there a quid pro quo here?” Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, asked Thomas. “Has this company said we must do business with them in other states or they won’t build here?”
Thomas replied that that was his understanding.
But Jim Mitchell, the Augusta lobbyist who spoke on behalf of Corrections Corp. of America, said there was no quid pro quo in the firm’s decision to consider Maine as a possible site for a private facility. He also said it had been mentioned that it would be easier to lure businesses to Maine if the state already was doing business with CCA.
CCA is considering building a 1,000- to 1,200-bed facility in either New Hampshire or Maine to meet regional demand. Vermont, which operates no prisons of its own, contracted with a CCA facility in Kentucky to incarcerate several hundred people convicted in Vermont.
One possibility would be moving them to Maine, according to Mitchell.
“Should Maine’s own correctional needs change in the future,” Mitchell said, “CCA would already being doing business in Maine.”
It is unlikely that prisoners now incarcerated in Maine facilities would be housed in the private facility if it were to be built in Milo, a Department of Corrections official told committee members.
Since the consolidation of the county jail system under the Board of Corrections, Maine’s prisons no longer are overcrowded because prisoners are being housed at county jails for about $25 a day, Jody Breton, associate commissioner for legislative and program services for the Department of Corrections, told the committee.
“Private prisons create a moral question,” Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland said in opposing the bill. “The object of private prisons — to increase profit — leads to multiple outcomes that conflict with the societal objective of care and rehabilitation.
“We are troubled that private prisons in other states have reduced staff and cut wages to preserve profit, at the expense of the safety of prisoners and guards alike. The profit motive creates a perverse incentive to skimp on these basic necessities and the outcomes are morally wrong and injurious to the health of society as a whole.”
Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, co-sponsored the bill. In his testimony before the committee, he said the need for the 300 to 400 good-paying jobs with benefits CCA has said the prison would create in Piscataquis County overrode most other considerations.
“Just driving around, one would think the only booming business is the ‘For Sale’ sign business,” he said. “Would I rather have a Dexter Shoe or a booming paper mill again? Absolutely. But that’s not what’s on our plate up there.”
Several people who opposed the bill did not address the issue of the construction of private prisons but opposed sending prisoners out of state far from family. Many of the same individuals supported LD 690, which would allow prisoners some say in whether they are transferred out of state.
That bill most likely will be held over until the next session while a DOC policy is put in place to address many of the same concerns the bill does. Prisoners are moved out of state to be closer to family, for medical treatment or security reasons, Breton said.
As of Friday, 28 of the more than 2,000 Maine prisoners were being held at out-of-state facilities, she told the committee. All but five of them are considered to be of the highest security risk.
The committee is scheduled to hold a work session on the bills next Thursday.