AUGUSTA, Maine — A legislative committee has given qualified approval to Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to issue a $100 million bond to fund prison construction that would nearly double the capacity of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
In a 5-4 vote last week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee OK’d the bond, but only on the condition it be delayed until July 1, 2015, and the state Department of Corrections first conduct a feasibility study of the project.
The committee took the vote as part of its package of budget recommendations that will next be considered by the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
Committee members who supported the plan to delay the bond and first study the project’s feasibility cited a need for more information on the project and needs within the state prison system before embracing the LePage administration’s $100 million bond proposal. They also wanted to evaluate claims from the state Department of Corrections that reconstructing the Windham prison would lower operating costs by $8 million annually.
Rep. Timothy Marks, who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, said he was interested in seeing a strategic plan from the Department of Corrections addressing facilities, prison populations and potential cooperation with Maine’s county jails over the next decade.
“Before we spend that kind of money, we should look a little further down the road,” said Marks, D-Pittston.
“It is an aging facility. I’m sure something needs to be done,” he said of the prison in Windham, which he and other committee members toured earlier this year. “I don’t know if we need to put all our eggs in one basket there or spread it out.”
The LePage administration unveiled its $100 million prison construction bond proposal in January as part of its plan for a new, two-year state budget. The bond would be issued by the Maine Governmental Facility Authority and wouldn’t require voter approval.
The Department of Corrections is proposing to replace all but three buildings on the 260-acre Windham campus. The new facilities, along with the existing buildings that will remain, would stray from the traditional prison setup in which corrections officers patrol long hallways lined with cells. Instead, they would be constructed like the women’s center in Windham, which is built around a central area where inmates can interact during the day and participate in a variety of activities.
Corrections officials say the improved design would help them provide more effective rehabilitation and vocational training programs for prisoners. The design also would make the prison easier to supervise, according to the corrections department. The $8 million in annual savings would come largely from staff reductions, as fewer corrections officers would be needed to patrol the facility.
The construction project would boost the Maine Correctional Center’s capacity to 1,200 from its current 650. The Windham prison housed 603 inmates in its general population at the beginning of April, according to the most recent inmate census from the Department of Corrections.
The prison construction proposal comes as Maine’s prison population has begun to shrink. Maine’s average daily prison population peaked at 2,246 in 2009 after growing 51 percent since 1993, according to Department of Corrections statistics. Since then, the number of inmates has fallen nearl y 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.
The state prison system housed 2,108 inmates at the start of April.
Correction: An earlier version of this report stated that the Department of Public Safety would conduct a feasibility study of the prison construction project. The Department of Corrections will do the study.