March 11, 2010

Inmates won't be moved out of Maine

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Maine won't be sending any of its inmates to out-of-state prisons, as Gov. John Baldacci proposed in his $6.1 billion budget.

Lawmakers have worked out an alternative budget plan for the state Department of Corrections, finding savings that eliminate the need to send inmates out of state to private prisons.

The new plan also maintains several programs in the corrections system that help prisoners transition back into society toward the end of their sentences.

''We decided that it wasn't a good idea to ship people out of state,'' said state Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. ''We rewrote the governor's budget.''

Baldacci, a Democrat, had proposed sending 118 inmates to a private prison run by the Corrections Corp. of America in Eden Prairie, Minn., to save roughly $2 million. The plan was part of Baldacci's budget proposal for the two-year period starting July 1, which seeks to close an $838 million budget gap.

But some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates were unhappy with the plan to ship prisoners away, concerned that the inmates would lose any connection with their communities and become more prone to re-offend when they were eventually released.

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, praised the Legislature on Monday for ''recognizing that keeping Maine prisoners in the Maine correctional system has human rights and public safety benefits.''

''Research demonstrates that recidivism rates are reduced when prisoners are able to establish and maintain ties to family, legal counsel and providers who will work with them on rehabilitation,'' Bellows said.

Legislators had been meeting for weeks, going over the budget proposal and gathering public comment. Gerzofsky's committee visited several prisons and a county jail, meeting with employees and getting a sense for potential cuts.

Lawmakers asked Department of Corrections officials to pick apart the system's operations and dig for cost savings, said state Rep. Richard Sykes of Harrison, the ranking Republican on the committee.

''They got down as deep as you can get in a budget,'' Sykes said.

State prison officials decided to move to 12-hour shifts from eight-hour shifts at the Maine State Prison in Warren, allowing the department to save money in overtime.

They also found savings in other areas, lawmakers said. They eliminated a number of telephone lines that were infrequently used. They reduced the wattage of some perimeter lights, saving energy costs. They changed policies so that small night lights in each inmate's cell stay on only at night, not during daylight hours.

Prison officials will save about $100,000 yearly by changing the way the Charleston Correctional Facility is heated, Gerzofsky said. The prison had been running wood-fired boilers for two out of three shifts each day, and then using oil for the third shift. Officials decided to burn wood around the clock to save money, staffing the boilers with a guard to oversee the prisoners doing the work.

And officials looked at some prison processes that were costing money, Gerzofsky said. For example, staffers line up cups with prisoners' medications daily, and then have the inmates file through. If an inmate isn't there, the medication is thrown away. That was costing the department $168,000 annually, Gerzofsky said. Instead, they will dispense the medication as the prisoners come, eliminating discards.

''I'm pleased,'' said state Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, co-chair of the committee. ''I think that we're running a very lean operation.''

Even with the cuts, the Corrections Department's budget would increase $18 million to cover rising costs. The department's overall budget is roughly $343 million for the next two-year period.

Sykes said his first priority was not to avoid sending prisoners out of state, although that was a top concern for some other lawmakers. He was more concerned with the plan to do away with programs that help transition prisoners back into society.

''To close those is a penny-wise, pound-foolish situation,'' he said.  

Noted Haskell: ''All of these were important components of rehabilitation, which is what we should be doing. It is the Department of Corrections.''

The Legislature's Appropriations and Public Safety committees are scheduled to debate the plan at 1 p.m. today in Room 228 of the State House.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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