Tempers flare as private prison considered in Milo

Posted June 09, 2011, at 9:31 p.m.
Last modified June 10, 2011, at 9:52 a.m.

MILO, Maine — Tempers flared Thursday at a forum on bringing a private prison to Maine, underlining the difficult choice this small Maine town faces if talk of bringing a for-profit prison here continues.

Approximately 60 Milo-area residents turned out for the forum, which was organized by the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which made no attempt to conceal the fact that it is fiercely against the notion of privately run prisons in Maine. The coalition also opposes shipping inmates from Maine to other states, which is a key provision in a bill that was presented to the Legislature earlier this year. LD 1095, An Act to Facilitate the Construction and Operation of Private Prisons by Authorizing the Transport of Prisoners Out of State, has been held over until the second half of the current legislative session, thereby delaying the debate until at least January.

Jim Bergin, a member of the coalition, said during the forum that it was not the group’s intention to tell Milo residents what to do, but rather to give them the information they needed to make the right decision.

“The citizens of this town really need to go through some due process,” said Bergin. “Bringing a prison into town has a range of ramifications you need to consider.”

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said her organization’s primary objection was the provision in the proposed bill that would send Maine prisoners to private prisons in other states. She said she also objects to profits made by putting people behind bars.

“When you start taking in people for profit, there’s no incentive to help people with their problems,” said Bellows.

The meeting consisted of presentations from a panel that included a retired Maine prison guard, a former prisoner and representatives from the Maine Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, but most of the talking was done by Frank Smith of the Private Corrections Institute. Smith, who has spent years rallying against private prisons across the United States, presented a brutal case against private prisons, particularly those run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the group that is considering a 154-acre facility in Milo’s industrial park.

Smith shared stories of mistreated prisoners, underpaid prison staff, private prisons that were built and now stand empty and escaped convicts’ violent cross-country killing sprees.

“It is an extraordinarily corrupt industry,” said Smith. “We really have commodified prisoners but we don’t use their labor we use their very bodies. The prisons get paid per person. You’re condemning yourself to terminal economic disaster.”

When one member of the audience interrupted Smith to ask if the panel had anything good to say about private prisons, Smith said he didn’t.

“Bring someone in from Corrections Corporation of America and they’ll tell you anything you want to hear,” he said. “You’re condemning yourselves to terminal economic disaster [if a private prison comes to Milo].”

If there were any representatives from private prisons or CCA at the forum, they did not identify themselves.

Smith’s comments appeared to upset some members of the audience, particularly when he railed against people who will work at private prisons for little better than minimum wage.

“These places look like prisons just like fast-food workers look like prison guards,” said Smith, which prompted six people in the audience to leave. Asked why by the Bangor Daily News outside the meeting hall, one man said “I’ve heard enough” and another said “This is not what I signed up for. People who work at McDonald’s are good people, too.” Neither man would identify himself.

Inside the meeting, Ron Vick of Milo, who used to live in Colorado, corroborated Smith’s comments.

“You’re not blowing any smoke at all,” he said of Smith. “When a private prison came in it destroyed the community. The welfare rolls went up and it put a burden on the school system. Everything you said about what’s going on in Colorado is 150 percent true.”

The meeting grew testy when Milo Town Manager Jeff Gahagan spoke up in response to comments made by some panelists. Gahagan said Thursday’s forum was the third he’s attended.

“Tonight was more doom and gloom than any of the other forums you’ve had,” he said. “The folks in Milo are very smart people. They don’t need you to come in here and tell them how to live their lives.”

Donna Carpenter of Milo said the town needs whatever jobs are available, regardless of what they pay.

“Look at this community,” she said. “People will work for $10 an hour or less because they have to. There’s nothing else.”

Jim Grinnell, a Milo resident who said he’s still trying to decide whether a private prison is right for his town, said after the event that he was “disappointed” with Thursday’s forum.

“We need something,” he said. “I think a private prison is something we need to consider and look at.”

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