ANALYSIS/POLL QUESTION

Does Maine need to double capacity at the Windham prison?

Matthew Stone, Erin Rhoda, Andrew Catalina and Eric Zelz | BDN
The number of inmates in Maine’s state prison system grew through much of the 1990s and 2000s, following national trends. Also matching national trends, Maine's state prison population has dropped since 2009. Now, Gov. Paul LePage's administration is proposing a $100 million construction project that would double capacity at Maine Correctional Center in Windham, to 1,200 from the current 650.
Posted March 22, 2013, at 6:10 p.m.
Last modified March 23, 2013, at 8:09 p.m.

Poll Question

Gov. Paul LePage is proposing to use a $100 million bond to overhaul the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The bond would pay for construction that would nearly double the prison's capacity.
Contributed by the Maine Department of Corrections
Gov. Paul LePage is proposing to use a $100 million bond to overhaul the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The bond would pay for construction that would nearly double the prison's capacity.

Part of Gov. Paul LePage’s equation for a $700 million injection of funds into Maine’s economy this year involves a $100 million bond to pay for construction that would almost double capacity at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

The LePage administration is proposing to overhaul and expand the Windham prison into a facility that’s easier to supervise and better suited to Maine’s aging and increasingly female prison population. The project would set the facility up for vocational training programs that start early during inmate sentences and prime prisoners for re-entry into their communities.

Whether to devote some of the state’s capacity for new debt to prison construction is among the dozens of decisions lawmakers will make in the coming months as they consider LePage’s proposal for a new two-year budget.

A prison plan

The Department of Corrections is pitching a construction plan that strays from the traditional prison setup in which corrections officers patrol long hallways lined with cells.

The department plans to replace all but three buildings on the 260-acre Windham campus, said Associate Corrections Commissioner Jody Breton. The facilities slated for eventual closure, she said, have been added to the prison over the years in piecemeal fashion.

“It’s very unlike what today’s modern facilities look like,” she said. “It’s not efficient on sight lines. It’s very security-intense just because of the way it’s broken up.”

The state Legislature established the Windham prison as a men’s facility in 1919, originally calling it the Reformatory Center for Men. As it expanded, it was renamed the Men’s Correctional Center.

That name changed to the current one, the Maine Correctional Center, in 1976 when women were moved to the property. Development at the site continued in 1989, when new housing units for men and women opened. And in 2002, a new women’s unit opened its doors.

The Department of Corrections plans to preserve the women’s center and those newest dorm facilities and replace everything else with buildings that resemble the newer structures, Breton said.

“It’s more of a therapeutic, rehabilitation-type program instead of punitive,” she said. “Most of our inmates are coming back into society. It does all of us good to get them into the best possible position, so they can re-enter successfully.”

The women’s center, she said, is largely built around a central area where inmates can interact during the day and participate in a variety of activities. It’s also easier to supervise.

“It’s not as staff-intensive. Your sight lines are good. You can depend more on technology,” Breton said.

If corrections officials are given the go-ahead, the new facility could be operating in three to four years, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte told lawmakers earlier this month. A more efficient design, he said, could save the state $8 million a year.

That design would require fewer staff members to supervise inmates, Breton said, so the bulk of savings would come from a need for fewer employees. The Maine Correctional Center currently has 252 employees, she said. Corrections officials haven’t determined how many they would need in Windham or system-wide or how they would go about reducing staff.

“We’re looking toward, from a citizen’s point of view, the most efficient way to do this,” Breton said.

Breton said the new facility also would help the Maine Correctional Center adapt to the prison population it’s serving. The prison needs more space for women, she said, and more geriatric services for an aging population.

The facility needs more infirmary beds, too, so fewer inmates are sent offsite for medical treatment at greater expense. “We only have seven infirmary beds in Windham, and they’re almost always full,” Breton said.

Growth in capacity, not prisoners

The number of inmates in Maine’s state prison system grew through much of the 1990s and 2000s, following national trends, as states — including Maine — passed stricter sentencing laws that instituted minimum sentences and required offenders to serve greater portions of their sentences behind bars.

Maine’s state prisons house offenders convicted of Class A, B and C crimes that range from aggravated operating under the influence to murder. That population grew 51 percent between 1993 and 2009, according to Department of Corrections statistics. The average sentence length in 2007 was 7.2 years, according to the Maine Justice Policy Center at the University of Southern Maine.

Still, Maine has retained its distinction as the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation. In 2011, Maine had 147 state prison inmates for every 100,000 residents, compared to a national average of 430. Louisiana had the highest rate, imprisoning 865 inmates for every 100,000 residents, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Maine’s average daily prison population peaked at 2,246 in 2009, according to department statistics. Since then, the number of inmates has fallen nearly 9 percent in tandem with a majority of states. The population fell to 2,174 in 2010, 2,080 in 2011 and 2,050 in 2012.

Since the inmate population has leveled off, the state prison system is no longer running into the capacity problems it encountered during much of the past decade. The Department of Corrections’ prisoner count this week showed 2,077 inmates in the prison system’s six facilities, which have a total capacity of 2,395. Breton said corrections officials aren’t forecasting much population change in the coming years.

Still, the Department of Corrections is planning a construction project that will nearly double the Windham prison’s capacity, from 650 to 1,200. The prison currently houses 577 inmates in the general population.

The added capacity at Windham could free up space elsewhere in the prison system, which Breton said would allow corrections officials to move prisoners to the most appropriate facility based on security level and available programs and services.

The department hasn’t made any decisions on whether more capacity in Windham will lead to the closure of other facilities. Ponte in 2011 proposed closing the 150-bed Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, though he took the proposal off the table after Washington County lawmakers protested.

There is a danger in introducing more prison capacity, Breton said, citing the new Maine State Prison in Warren and the Women’s Center in Windham, which both opened in 2002.

“They both went to capacity quickly,” Breton said. “If you build, they shall come, so we would have to look at that.”

Some of the additional capacity will allow the Windham prison to house more women.

While the state’s overall prison population has started to shrink, the number of women in Maine prisons is growing. Between 2000 and 2011, the number grew 129 percent, from 62 to 142, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. During the same period, the male population grew 15 percent. Females make up 7.2 percent of Maine’s prison population.

Are prisons a priority?

In terms of mission, Breton said the Department of Corrections imagines a Windham prison that starts preparing inmates for their release the moment they’re committed to the prison.

But Jim Mackie of AFSCME Council 93, which represents corrections officers throughout the state prison system, doesn’t buy it, citing the department’s recent decision to close the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell, which Mackie called “one of the most productive programs in the Maine correctional system.

“That’s always his line, ‘We can make it better for the prisoners,’” Mackie said of Ponte. “The only thing that guy is interested in is the bottom line, the dollar.”

Mackie is concerned that means major staff reductions that could make Maine’s prisons unsafe for the employees who remain.

In Windham, the proposal for a new prison facility came as a surprise to most residents, and there hasn’t been community outreach to explain the proposal, said Bill Diamond, a former Democratic senator from the Cumberland County town.

“It would probably be nice to have a new prison, but not at the expense of the $100 million plus that goes with that and the current budget situation where all the high priorities are being cut,” he said. “It just doesn’t add up.”

The LePage administration is proposing to sell the bond through the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority, which wouldn’t require voter approval. Ponte has said the bond could be paid back in installments over a 15- to 20-year period.

The Maine Correctional Center is in need of upgrades, especially if its mission is to prepare prisoners to re-enter society, said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, who chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

“If we’re telling them that we want them not only to house but to rehabilitate individuals and prepare them for re-entry, then they need the kind of spaces to facilitate that activity,” he said.

Before he takes a position on the $100 million bond proposal, however, Dion said he wants to know if the construction can take place in smaller phases rather than all at once.

Sen. Gary Plummer, a Windham Republican who serves on the Criminal Justice panel, said the project could mean a major economic boost for his area. But before he lends his support, he wants proof that a new prison can help the state save in the long run.

“The only way it would be the right time to float a bond would be if the governor’s numbers work,” he said.

Matthew Stone is a reporter in the BDN’s State House bureau.

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