The Maine Department of Corrections wants to rebuild the aging Maine Correctional Center in South Windham at an estimated cost of $173 million, and already has begun constructing a women’s re-entry facility at the River Road campus.
Deputy Commissioner Jody Breton said the department needs legislative approval to borrow the money needed to rebuild the 96-year-old prison. The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee has scheduled a work session for Tuesday on a bill that, if passed, would authorize the state to apply for up to $173 million in bonds.
It will be left up to the Criminal Justice Committee to recommend passage of the bill, and a veteran member of that panel said the Department of Corrections needs to be more transparent about the need for such an expensive facility. Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat from Brunswick who has served on the committee for 16 years, also noted that voters will not be directly involved in the decision since the expenditure does not have to be approved in a statewide referendum.
“It’s a hell of a lot of money,” Gerzofsky said. “They are going to have a lot of explaining to do and a lot of convincing. Before I spend $173 million on a jail, I’m going to be replacing a school. I have schools in my district that are older than this prison.”
The bill, which was supported by Gov. Paul LePage last year, was carried over from the 2015 legislative session to 2016 because it was submitted late and legislators felt there wasn’t enough time to give the public time for input, Breton said.
“That money will lead to a major renovation and complete revamping of the entire South Windham campus,” she said.
INCREASING CAPACITIES IN WINDHAM
Renovating the prison will increase security, allow the state to close less efficient prisons and add more than 200 beds at the Windham facility, Breton said. The prison, which houses men and women, currently can hold 675 prisoners, she said.
The state broke ground in November on a $7 million, 72-bed re-entry center for female prisoners that will replace a leased correctional facility in Alfred. The center could be expanded to 96 beds if the state can negotiate a new contract with the contractor. The expansion is possible because the winning bid was $3 million below what the state budgeted.
The re-entry facility in Alfred gives female inmates the skills and experience they need to transition back into their communities. To qualify, a female prisoner must have served at least 120 days of her sentence and have about one year left to serve.
The re-entry facility is being built on River Road just down the hill from the Maine Correctional Center. Funds for that project already have been approved and are separate from the $173 million renovation.
Landry/French Construction Co. of Scarborough broke ground on the project Nov. 23 and expects to finish it by 2017.
POTENTIAL CONSOLIDATION SAVINGS
The state estimates that it could save $9 million a year in operating costs by closing the Alfred facility, renovating the Windham campus and moving some prisoners – the number hasn’t been determined – from Windham to empty beds at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
A newly renovated Maine Correctional Center also would allow the department to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport and to consolidate the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston with the Charleston Correctional Facility.
In December, more than a dozen Windham residents attended a meeting organized by the department to inform the public about the renovation project. Among those at the meeting was Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham.
He said the department revised its original plan, which would have moved new construction closer to a residential neighborhood on Mallison Falls Road. The plan presented Dec. 16 by SMRT Architects of Portland showed that the state has decided to use the existing footprint.
“There seems to be a lot of support for this project locally,” Diamond said. “The residents’ biggest concern was that the prison was not going to rebuild on the existing footprint. They learned that is not going to be the case.”
BETTER SECURITY, PUBLIC MEETINGS
Breton said the plan calls for the installation of two perimeter fences instead of one, a security measure she says is long overdue.
Some buildings, such as the gym and multipurpose center, would be renovated, while other more outdated buildings would be demolished.
The state estimates it would take about five years to complete the renovation.
Diamond said he is planning to organize a series of public forums in February so residents can learn more about the state’s renovation plan. He said he has toured the aging facility a number of times and described it as long overdue for repairs.
“In many areas it is not safe,” Diamond said. “It’s really starting to fall down.”
According to the Department of Corrections website, the prison was established by an act of the Legislature on April 4, 1919. It was originally called the Reformatory for Men, and was renamed the Men’s Correctional Center in 1976.