Thursday, December 5, 2013
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.
Liberty said the jail has had a pre-release work program for about 20 years. In that program, county inmate work crews perform supervised work such as cleaning public cemeteries or painting buildings, as do state inmates at the pre-release center in Hallowell.
He said for every two days of work, county inmates get one day shaved off their sentences.
The work performed by state inmates from the pre-release center, which Wilson said amounts to thousands of hours a year, is one reason many residents in the area have advocated keeping it in Hallowell.
Legislators also have voiced concern about the planned April 15 closure of the facility.
But the state wants to sell the complex where the pre-release center is located, and Wilson said state officials fear that having a correctional facility as the anchor tenant of the complex would make it harder to sell.
Wilson said the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee wants to know whether any central Maine community would be interested in being the location of a pre-release center.
Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life in Augusta, which runs a soup kitchen, a shelter and housing programs, said pre-release center inmates have worked countless hours on the nonprofit group's buildings and grounds and "do amazing things for our organization."
At a recent public meeting in Hallowell, more than 50 people spoke of the pre-release center's benefits and seemed unanimous in their support of its remaining at its current location. Lachance said he was struck by the fact that none of them suggested that if it has to move, it move elsewhere in Hallowell.
"Someone stood up and spoke about all the benefits of the program, then said, 'Why can't it move to Augusta?' " he said.
Scott Fish, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said Friday the moving date is "fluid" because the department is open to considering other locations for the center in the Augusta area.
"I need to know if my community supports the idea" of having a pre-release center in Augusta, Wilson said. "My feeling is the community may not like having that facility here, but I feel that may change if there were more education about the type of facility we're dealing with.
"We're not talking about another jail here. These are minimum-security inmates. They don't pose a threat, generally, to society in any way. These individuals are working on a daily basis, are at the end of their sentences and looking to be released."
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: