AUGUSTA — A bill to allow a privately run prison in Maine, carried over from last year’s session, was killed Monday after lawmakers were told that no one is interested in running such a facility.
The bill appeared last year, with interest in bolstering the anemic economy of the Milo area, and won support from some lawmakers in that rural region. But it lacked enough support to pass and was on the verge of being killed by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who has a longstanding interest in corrections issues, persuaded lawmakers to keep the measure alive until this year’s session in hopes of addressing what has become a pattern in Maine and the rest of the country: aging inmates.
“We know we have people that are aging in our facilities,” said Gerzofsky, noting that Maine has been without parole for decades. With aging comes increased medical and other special-care needs, which the prisons weren’t designed to provide, he said.
Gerzofsky said the state authorized the Department of Corrections to put prisoners in nursing homes, but no nursing homes showed interest in providing that service. “So we’re just looking for another avenue to address the issue,” he said.
State officials who sought companies that run prisons under state contracts also found no interest in building and running a facility for older inmates in Maine. Acknowledging that, Gerzofsky asked the Criminal Justice Committee to kill the bill.
Maine, which the U.S. Census says has the nation’s oldest population in general, also has an aging prison population, following a national trend.
U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that from 1999 to 2007, the number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, while the number ages 45 to 54 grew 67.5 percent.
The aging of the prison population adds expenses, according to Vera, an independent nonprofit center that studies reform initiatives.
Older inmates have higher rates of health problems, including mental illness, increased risk of major disease and a greater need for assistance with daily living, Vera says. Hearing loss, vision problems, arthritis, hypertension and dementia are all more common among older inmates, the group says.
Gerzofsky said lawmakers now have no plan to address the rising number of older inmates, but the state will have to face it eventually.