Study endorses new prison for Windham, closing facility Down East

Posted Feb. 21, 2014, at 2:17 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 21, 2014, at 3:54 p.m.
Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.
Maine Department of Corrections
Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.

MACHIASPORT, Maine — State officials have taken the wraps off a study that endorses replacing the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and closing, downsizing, or converting other prison facilities.

More than 100 jobs would be eliminated, including 50 from the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, which would be closed.

Officials with the Department of Corrections briefed the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday about the study, which state lawmakers mandated a year ago. Corrections officials staged a ‘town meeting’ in Windham on Thursday night to share information about the study.

The centerpiece of the study is a recommendation to replace the Maine Correctional Center, but additional recommendations would impact other prison facilities.

Replacing the Windham prison would cost an estimated $173.1 million, according to the study, which was performed by SMRT Architects of Portland and Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, a criminal justice consulting firm based in Lido Beach, N.Y. Financing the project with bonds would cost $12.74 million annually for 20 years, or $254.8 million.

However, annual savings that result from the proposal would exceed bond payments by $0.9 million, according to the study. Those savings would be achieved by reduced prison system operating costs of $8.5 million annually and avoiding the need for an estimated $71.4 million in needed improvements to various prison facilities if the project is not undertaken.

The key recommendations of the study are as follows:

• Replace most of the structures at Maine Correctional Center to house 1,094 inmates.

• Close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport.

• Close the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center.

• Convert the existing Women’s Correctional Center at the Maine Correctional Center to become the new women’s community correctional center.

• Downsize the Charleston Correctional Facility and operate it as a satellite of the Mountain View Juvenile Development Center in Charleston.

• Move up to 80 youthful adult male inmates to the Mountain View Juvenile Development Center.

• Increase the inmate population at the Maine State Prison by 118 beds.

The Downeast Correctional Facility is a minimum security prison that houses about 150 inmates and employs some 50 people. It is located on the site of a former Air Force station on the outskirts of Bucks Harbor, a fishing village in the town of Machiasport in Washington County, one of Maine’s poorest counties. The prison’s physical plant is very limited, the study noted, requires significant maintenance and does not meet correctional standards. In addition, it has “extremely high” operating costs, according to the study.

The Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center employs about 20 people, but those positions would be shifted to the new prison at Windham, according to Corrections officials. No jobs would be lost at the Charleston facility.

Realigning prison facilities in accordance with the study’s recommendations would reduce the ratio of staff per 100 inmates from 34.4 to 27.8 and reduce the prison system’s daily operating costs from $104.94 per inmate to $89.96.

Maine’s average daily cost per offender was the the ninth highest among the 47 states reporting such data as of 2012.

A 2002 study recommended the replacement of the Windham prison, but a bond issue was rejected. In 1997 a similar study led to the replacement of the penitentiary in Thomaston with a new, far more efficient prison in Warren.

If implemented, the study’s recommendations would enable the Department of Corrections “to do more with less,” Scott Fish, a spokesman for the prison system, said Friday.

The objectives of the study included the feasibility of replacing the Maine Correctional Center, reducing prison system operating costs, avoiding deferred maintenance and improvements at the Windham and Machiasport prison facilities, creating more medium security prison capacity, improving public safety, expanding services to inmates with special needs, and helping county jails by providing bed capacity for inmates with special needs.

Adding prison bed capacity was not an objective. The study provides for 2,281 general population beds; current budgeted bed capacity is 2,176. The additional beds that would be built at Windham would be for inmates with special needs as well as for flexibility in housing other inmates at times of peak capacity.

“The replacement of MCC and general realignment of (prison) facilities will serve to provide the state with a far more efficient adult correctional system while also significantly enhancing the effectiveness and treatment capacity of its correctional programs, treatment and reentry efforts,” the study concludes in its executive summary.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte briefed the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday. The prison system currently employs 739 people; the study recommendations would reduce that figure to 634.

“We’re just getting started here,” said Fish, who noted the study will require legislative approval. Additional town meetings will allow more opportunities for people to learn about the study’s recommendations and to provide input about them, he said.

Jim Mackie of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO Council 93, which represents corrections officers, called the study “pretty outrageous” and referred to the proposed prison as a “palace.”

“That’s really what it is,” said Mackie, who had a private meeting with Ponte and other officials before they appeared before the legislative panel. “The commissioner is just about these poor inmates.”

“I understand where they’re coming from,” said state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, whose district includes the Downeast Correctional Facility. The study recommendations could save the state a lot of money, he acknowledged. However, those savings should not come “to the detriment of rural counties that have a big stake in this.”

Aside from the economic effect of the job losses, the towns in the greater Machias area get quite a bit of help from the prison in the form of inmate labor for various community service project, noted Burns. That and other factors need to be considered in evaluating the study, he said.

“I think that the commissioner’s plan is highly flawed,” Chris Gardiner, chairman of the Washington County Commission, said Friday, referring to Ponte. He has not read the study report, said Gardiner, but added that local officials have been apprised by the Maine County Commissioners as the study has proceeded in draft form. “I am very familiar with what’s being proposed,” he said.

“The county commissioners have been actively following this,” said Gardiner. “We will fight this,” he said, along with the Department of Corrections bid to take over county jails. State officials have considered closing the Machiasport prison in the past, he noted.

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