An increasingly dangerous inmate population at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham warrants allowing officers to shoot at prisoners who are trying to escape, says the director of security for the Maine Department of Corrections.
But state lawmakers aren’t sure they want to open that option.
Corrections officers and supervisors at the Maine State Prison in Warren already have the legal right to use deadly force if needed to prevent a prisoner from escaping.
A bill before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee would extend that right to guards at the Windham facility.
Gary LaPlante, acting deputy superintendent for the Maine Correctional Center and director of security for the state’s eight correctional facilities, said the mix of prisoners at the Windham facility is becoming similar to that at the state prison.
Also, he said, the state plans to use the correctional center as the first stop for all prisoners before they’re classified and placed in a facility – meaning all of the most dangerous criminals will be in Windham at some point.
“I’d think you want the same level of protection,” LaPlante said about the Warren and Windham facilities.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, however, doesn’t think a prisoner’s placement in the Maine Correctional Center should mean the inmate’s life is in danger for trying to escape – especially since many of the prisoners are there for lesser crimes and some haven’t been convicted.
“Maybe I’m unreasonable. Maybe I think people have a right to life,” said Dion, House chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and former Cumberland County sheriff.
LaPlante said Windham used to serve as a reformatory and there was no fence around the facility. Of the 655 prisoners there Friday morning, he said, 28 are serving time for murder, attempted murder or conspiracy to commit murder. Another 25 prisoners are in for manslaughter and 35 for arson, he said.
But Maine doesn’t allow any of them to be sentenced to death, Dion said.
“What we’re being asked to do is sanction the death penalty on someone trying to go over the fence,” he said.
Dion said he sponsored the bill at the request of the department because most of it includes housekeeping measures. He believes committee support for the deadly-force provision is split along party lines.
But Rep. Tyler Thomas, R-Windham, said he would need more convincing of the dangerousness of the correctional center’s prisoners before supporting the measure.
“If it’s going to be mostly minimum security, I’m not going to support it,” he said. On the other hand, he said, “if Windham is truly another Warren prison, shouldn’t they have the same rules as Warren does?”
Although generally prisoners serving sentences of more than five years go to the state prison, good behavior or a conflict with another prisoner could get them moved to Windham, LaPlante said.
He said there are currently six prisoners serving life sentences at the correctional center and 14 who have release dates between 2032 and 2067.
LaPlante said there have been no prisoner escapes from the Maine Correctional Center in at least 10 years, and there have been none at the Maine State Prison since it moved from Thomaston to Warren in 2002.
Currently, correctional center guards can use deadly force if they know the escaping prisoner has committed a dangerous crime or if the prisoner is putting a staff member or another prisoner in danger, LaPlante said.
At the state prison, he said, before using deadly force officers are required “to take all reasonable efforts” to stop prisoners trying to escape, including warning them about their right to use deadly force.
Warning signs also are posted at the prison and would be at the correctional center, if the law is changed.
But Dion said he can’t imagine an escaping prisoner heeding a sign while scaling a fence.
“I’m not sure they’re going to stop and read all four paragraphs and say, ‘Now that’s a bad idea,’” he said.