March 17, 2013

Pre-release center's new site weighed

Augusta officials question whether the capital city is the right place for another state facility.

By KEITH EDWARDS Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - Some inmates at the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell could move to the Kennebec County jail in Augusta after the center closes next month, under a proposal that state and county corrections officials are discussing.

State officials also have asked whether Augusta would be interested in being home to a new pre-release center, and potentially take all the state inmates now housed in Hallowell, and possibly others from elsewhere in the state as well.

City officials said they believe the pre-release center provides a good program but worry that residents may be wary of moving it to Augusta, already home to the county jail, Riverview Psychiatric Center and group homes housing mental health patients who have committed violent crimes. The pre-release program is for felons nearing the end of their prison terms and preparing to re-enter society.

City councilors say that before making a decision, they need more information about the possible location and the inmates it would house. They want input from residents, too.

"We need to make sure our constituents are heard on this," said Mayor William Stokes, who is also head of the criminal division of the Maine Attorney General's Office.

"Trust me -- I think pre-release programs, if properly operated, are a great correctional tool that allows inmates to transition into the community, gives them skills and provides a valuable service to the community. And I don't think any of us question the outstanding work they've done for the city of Augusta. But my real concern is, do the citizens of Augusta have a sort of fatigue of being the default site for facilities, state facilities, where no other community steps up?"

Speaking Thursday night as councilors discussed the issue with Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, Stokes also referred to the closure last year of two group homes that housed forensic patients on the state-owned grounds of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute.

The patients, some of whom had been found not criminally responsible for violent criminal acts, were moved into two group homes elsewhere in Augusta.

Stokes said some city residents are "still reeling from being what they consider blindsided by the state" because the patients were moved without prior notice or public input.

A county proposal could keep some pre-release center inmates at the Kennebec County jail.

The proposal, which Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty plans to discuss with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte on Monday, would move state inmates who are from central Maine to the county jail, which also has a pre-release program. Those inmates then would transition back into society from there.

Liberty said five of the 39 inmates now at the Hallowell pre-release center are from central Maine. The pre-release center can hold about 60 inmates.

Liberty said he was told that the rest of the inmates now at the Hallowell center would move to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

The preliminary proposal stems from a philosophy that it's better for inmates to transition from imprisonment through pre-release and back into society in their own communities, Liberty said. He said the program could expand later to include more county jails taking pre-release state prisoners who had previously lived in those areas.

Liberty said the proposal could result in some state employees from the pre-release center in Hallowell going to the county jail to oversee the state inmates.

Some city councilors voiced concern that the jail might not have the space for inmates from the pre-release center.

Liberty said Friday the jail has the capacity to take additional prisoners and there would be no additional cost to county taxpayers, because the state would pick up the expense.

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