As lawmakers work to firm up a state budget that’s out of balance and debate an expansion of Medicaid, a proposal to nearly double the capacity of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham will resurface in coming weeks.
Gov. Paul LePage included the expansion project and a $100 million bond for it last year in his proposal for a two-year state budget. Lawmakers didn’t reject the idea, but they opted to move more slowly, asking first for a feasibility study with prison population projections, detailed cost breakdowns and an analysis of the prison construction’s impact on Windham.
The Maine Department of Corrections is finishing that study and expects to present it soon to lawmakers.
The construction would replace all but three buildings on the 260-acre Windham site, according to plans Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte presented to lawmakers last year. The end result would be a prison with just fewer than 1,200 beds — up from 670 — that can better accommodate two demographics accounting for a growing portion of Maine’s prison population: women and aging inmates who require geriatric services.
“While you’re going to pay a big deal of cost to build the facility, staffing it will cost less money down the road,” said Ponte. “If you build something that’s going to be more staff-efficient and safer, you’re going to save money long-term.”
More beds, same staff
The new facilities would be constructed much like Windham’s 12-year-old women’s center, one of three Windham buildings that would be preserved. That facility is built around a central area where inmates can interact during the day and participate in a variety of activities.
Some Maine Correctional Center buildings date to the 1930s, and others have been added over the years in piecemeal fashion.
“If we consolidated these facilities and made MCC more efficient, we could do the same job with substantially fewer staff,” Ponte said.
Ponte expects the 1,200-bed prison could be run with the same size staff that runs the 670-bed prison today — about 250 employees.
That’s what concerns Jim Mackie of AFSCME Council 93, which represents corrections officers. He has said major staff reductions could make Maine’s prisons unsafe for the employees who remain.
Ponte told lawmakers last year the improved design could save the state $8 million annually in operational costs.
The savings, of course, would come after the initial construction costs. LePage last year proposed a $100 million construction bond to cover the costs, but Ponte said he expects construction to cost more. The final estimate is a moving target, he said. Working with an architect, corrections officials are making minor adjustments to rein in construction costs.
The expansion, which would nearly double capacity in Windham, would have effects across Maine’s prison system, which currently has space for 2,233 inmates.
“We’re not trying to add beds to the system,” Ponte said. “It’s a really minor increase in beds. We’re really trying to make the beds we have more efficient.
“The concept would be shutting some of the small facilities down completely,” and transferring inmates to the Maine Correctional Center, Ponte said.
The 150-inmate Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, for example, is “an old facility that was never designed as a prison, and it’s very expensive to operate,” Ponte said.
The 220-inmate Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren didn’t start as a prison either.
“At this point, the consideration is on the drawing board,” Ponte said. “I wouldn’t even venture a guess right now as to who is going to be impacted in the design. There will be an impact.”
Consolidating prison facilities is easier said than done. Ponte in 2011 proposed closing the 150-bed Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. Washington County lawmakers protested, however, and he took the proposal off the table.
Maine’s prison population
Maine’s state prisons house offenders convicted of Class A, B and C crimes that range from aggravated operating under the influence to murder. The prison 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.
However, Maine’s prison population has been on a slight decline or relatively flat in recent years. The average daily population peaked in 2009 at 2,246, according to the Department of Corrections. In 2012, it had fallen to 2,050 before inching up to 2,059 last year.
Females in 2012 made up 6.9 percent of Maine’s prisoners, up from 3.4 percent in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The age of Maine’s prisoners has also creeped up: In 2012, about 8 percent were older than 55, and nationwide, the number of prisoners older than 55 grew 282 percent between 1995 and 2010, compared with 42 percent overall growth, according to Human Rights Watch.
Maine and the nation
It’s difficult to nail down a precise figure, but it’s clear Maine has among the highest per-inmate spending in the nation.
A 2010 paper by University of Maine economics professor Philip Trostel found Maine had the second highest per-inmate spending in the nation in 2007, at $64,155, compared with $29,872 nationally. In 2010, the Vera Institute for Justice calculated Maine’s per-prisoner spending at $46,404, compared with a U.S. average of $31,286. (New York came out on top in that survey, spending $60,076 per inmate.) And a 2010 paper commissioned by GrowSmart Maine reported Maine spent $98,500 per inmate, compared with a national average of $46,400.
Maine’s state budget this year sets aside $160.7 million for corrections spending.
Although Maine’s prison population grew throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the Pine Tree State has retained one of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates in the U.S. Since 2007, it’s had the lowest, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 2012, Maine’s imprisonment rate was 145 inmates for every 100,000 residents; in 1978, Maine had 52 inmates for every 100,000 people. The nation’s highest incarceration rates in 2012 were in Louisiana (893), Mississippi (717) and Alabama (650).
Despite Maine’s low incarceration rate, the state’s inmate population generally has followed national trends.
The national prison population also peaked in 2009, at 1.62 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. At the end of 2012, that number had dropped to 1.57 million. And that slight decline came after decades of consistent growth: Between 1978 and 2009, the total population in state and federal prisons grew more than 425 percent.
Prison construction expanded accordingly — and relatively evenly across the country. According to the Urban Institute, the number of state prisons grew from about 600 in the mid-1970s to more than 1,000 by 2000.
Today, a number of states are investing in a range of tactics aimed at shrinking their prison populations. Some 17 states participating in a federal program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative have taken steps to improve substance abuse treatment options available outside prisons, shorten sentences for technical parole and probation violations, and institute “good behavior” credit systems that allow inmates to shave time off their sentences.
An Urban Institute study released Monday found that the participating states, which included New Hampshire, expect to save $4.6 billion in their corrections budgets over an 11-year period from reduced operational costs and averted prison construction costs — the result of prison populations that are starting to shrink and are projected to continue decreasing.
In Maine, Ponte said, the prison system is taking steps to better match inmates with the services they need when their sentences start, such as improved in-prison substance abuse addiction counseling, rehabilitation for sex offenders and educational offerings.
“We’ve got a flattening population, which is good news,” Ponte said. “How do we get these guys, once they’re out, to stay out?”
Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.