Last spring, shortly after the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections announced that he was planning to put forward a proposal to build a hundred million dollar prison in Windham, I came home from Augusta to a rather decisive message on my answering machine from a friend/constituent named Earl. Earl was very clear in his opposition to spending money to build a new prison facility. I know that I have his correct words because I wrote them down. Here is what Earl said. “Hi Gary, I am just calling to tell you that I don’t want to spend one single penny on a prison for criminals.”

Well, I was not really surprised by this comment. After serving as a Cumberland County Commissioner, where I oversaw the Cumberland County Jail, and on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, I know there are many people who want to keep criminals locked up, but don’t really want to pay the costs of incarceration.

I didn’t think much about this subject during the next few weeks. We were busy in committee with many gun bills and the budget discussions were really heating up. Then I saw on our schedule of budget presentations that the corrections commissioner would be making a presentation to the Criminal Justice Committee about the proposed new facility.

The day of the presentation came and our committee members were armed with questions. Before questions were taken, the commissioner gave an oral overview of the proposal. The gist of his remarks was that the state could build a facility in Windham, operate it and other prison facilities, and pay the debt service on the loan (bond) for less money than we are currently spending to run our existing state correctional facilities. The new facility would house many more prisoners than the current Maine Correctional Center (MCC). This would allow the closing of some of the other older, inefficient facilities in other parts of the state and moving those prisoners to Windham. It would replace all except three of the buildings at MCC. The buildings constructed in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s would be removed. The Committee asked for several details and the commissioner promised to come back to us at another meeting with answers. He also left us with a stack of reading material pertinent to the project.

That night, as I sat down to review the packet the commissioner left for us, I was reminded of a saying that my dad often used. He would say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” As you may have guessed, I was still very skeptical that we could spend less and get a great deal more. I thought about what Earl had said.

The more I read, the more this project seemed to make sense; but I knew that I did not have enough information to make an informed decision. I concluded my work that evening and wondered if this could be an exception to my father’s rule? Maybe I was just being overly optimistic.

A future work session on this subject allowed the commissioner to provide answers to our questions and much more detail. I should add that the reason we were discussing this during budget deliberations is that the department of corrections requested $200,000 in their budget to do a comprehensive feasibility study of the proposed project. I supported the study so we would have the facts we would need to make a decision. To my surprise, some members of the committee were strongly opposed to even studying the proposal. It almost seemed like they were afraid it might prove to be a good idea and they were so opposed to building a facility in Windham that they did not want to take a chance the study could show that it is feasible.

The Criminal Justice Committee, on a split vote, sent the proposal to the Appropriations Committee. Appropriations, in turn, authorized the Corrections Department to spend up to $250,000 on a feasibility study, as long as they could find the funds in their approved budget; no new funds would be added for this study. The Corrections Commissioner agreed to do this.

I have heard some people say we should not consider spending $100 million for corrections when we could use that money to fund human services or education. The fallacy of that thought process is that there is no huge pot of money sitting there waiting to be spent. The only way that money will exist is if the study shows beyond a reasonable doubt that a new facility can be built and run for less money than we are currently spending for this purpose.

I have tried to evaluate the pros and cons of building a new correctional facility in Windham. On the negative side is the prospect of borrowing money that will have to be paid back over the next several years. I also want to know the classification of the type of prisoners we would be bringing here. Although the super max at the state prison has a great record of keeping the most dangerous prisoners inside the facility, I think we need to know if those prisoners might be transferred here.

On the plus side, a new larger facility would provide many new jobs in our area. It would provide much greater safety for employees as well as prisoners. We already have plenty of land at MCC (about 100 acres).

I am not ready to endorse building a new correctional facility in Windham, but I do think we need to base that decision on facts. The current study must show this project is not too good to be true.

State Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Cumberland, represents Senate District 12, which includes the Cumberland County towns of Casco, Frye Island, Raymond, Standish, and Windham as well as the York County town of Hollis.

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