May 25, 2018
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Christmas behind bars challenges prisoners, staff

By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff

BUCKS HARBOR, Maine — If you think you’re stressed out by the holidays, at least you won’t be spending Christmas behind bars and barbed-wire.

“Christmas is a very tough time, both for prisoners and for staff,” said Scott Jones, director of the state’s Downeast Correctional Facility at Bucks Harbor. “It’s a time when the correction officers and others who work here would prefer to be home with their families, and the prisoners are thinking of their families or about visitors, or about lack of visitors. It’s always a relief to me to get through the holidays.”

You won’t see holiday decorations or hear Christmas music inside the stark prison facility located on the grounds of the former Bucks Harbor Air Force Station. You will find a full house of 149 prisoners, about 100 of whom are classified as medium security, the others minimum security. Not many prisoners will have visitors this holiday weekend, Jones said.

“I think nine prisoners have visitors [scheduled] on Saturday and seven on Sunday,” Jones said Thursday afternoon. “We allow up to 16 visits [each day], which run for two hours, between 1 and 3 p.m. on weekends. If prisoners are from midcoast or southern Maine, making the trip here can be quite a hike for their families.”

The facility does host special religious services on Christmas, including services for Catholic, Protestant and Native American prisoners. “We have done services for Muslim prisoners,” Jones said, “although, in general, they aren’t that interested in Christmas.”

Prisoners are served a ham dinner on Christmas and are also allowed to choose up to $10 worth of items as part of the prison commissary’s Christmas giveaway. Most select candy bars, soft drinks or soups, Jones said. Prisoners also receive gift bags from the Bar Harbor-based Maine Seacoast Mission, which usually include such necessities as soap, shampoo, a comb, a book and writing materials.

The Mission also delivered holiday gift bags for prisoners at the Washington County Jail in Machias, which on Friday had a headcount of 47.

“We try to make things a little brighter both for Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Friday. “We’ll have Christmas cookies and put on a turkey or ham dinner. At Christmas we show movies, although this year we are doing the movies next weekend. It’s not much, but there’s not a lot of room here. There’s a common area and a cafeteria, but this is a jail that was built for 32 prisoners. Today we have 47, and 42 is what I’m allowed to have. We’re always over capacity.”

As staffing permits, Smith said the jail tries to accommodate family visits. “We try not to keep inmates from seeing visitors, but they do have to make appointments. The truth is there aren’t many visitors, even at Christmas.”

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