Three weeks after the groundbreaking on the new, 21,500-square-foot women’s re-entry facility being built near the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham, state officials last week unveiled an overhauled version of a plan to renovate and expand the prison’s main campus.

More than a dozen residents attended a meeting Dec. 16 organized by the state Department of Corrections to learn about an updated version of the multi-million-dollar project that was first proposed about three years ago.

Rebuilding the Maine Correctional Center, in part to beef up its security and address issues of overcrowding, however, has been a goal of the department for 15 years.

Estimated to cost about $171 million, the prison renovation project requires a bond and approval from the state Legislature. In winter 2014, the department unsuccessfully sought approval from state lawmakers to build a new $173 million facility, and has since gone back to re-work its concept.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, Department of Corrections commissioner, said the next step is to give the state Criminal Justice Committee a tour of the facility in January to further hone the proposal. More community meetings on the project will be held in 2016, as well.

While the old plan would have placed new construction close to a nearby neighborhood on Mallison Falls Road, the most recent plan calls for a combination of expanding and renovating the footprint of the prison, situating new buildings closer to the existing structures – and away from neighbors.

Another big change with the revised plan is the department’s proposal to repurpose and incorporate some of the existing prison buildings, a cost-savings measure. The previous plan would have completely rebuilt the prison in a different spot.

Now, “(the new prison) is going to be superimposed on the existing site,” Fitzpatrick said.

The project would renovate a few of the existing buildings and knock down some older structures, he said. Some of the prisoners would be temporarily moved to other facilities during the construction, Fitzpatrick said.

Officials estimate construction of the new facility to take five years from start to finish. The start date is as yet undetermined, due to a lengthy process involving state and local governments.

According to David Lay, an architect with SMRT, the revised plan saves the department money since it would be salvaging some of the old buildings versus building new structures. Fitzpatrick said the project would be 50 percent funded by the department.

State Sen. Bill Diamond, who lives in Windham, said he and other legislators would organize public forums in February to help advertise the new proposal, which he supports.

“One, I like the location, and that they didn’t go across the road right next to the neighborhood,” Diamond said, “and two, those buildings are really old. I think it’s time that we had a facility that is going to be safe (for staff and inmates) and protect the citizens, as well.

“The bill that will fund the prison will be in committee by then,” Diamond said. “We want to have a public hearing for anyone that wants to share their concerns or ask questions.”

The existing Maine Correctional Center, surrounded by high fencing and hay fields, and perched atop a small rise just east of the Presumpscot River, dates from the 1930s, and is said by state officials to be in dire need of replacement. According to Fitzpatrick, the expansion project would add offices and prisoner care facilities and add 200-250 beds to address overcrowding and handle more inmates. It also takes into consideration future expansion. The facility now holds about 600 beds.

“We need more treatment (program space),” said Fitzpatrick. “There are various populations that we have really limited capacity to treat.”

State Rep. Patrick Corey of Windham, who attended last week’s meeting and lives nearby on River Road, said what he finds attractive about the new plan is that it pushes the busy visitor and staff parking toward the rear of the facility, where it’s less visible from the road.

“I think the neighbors will really like that,” said Corey.

Exterior lighting at the new prison would also be less obtrusive to neighbors since fixtures would direct light toward the ground, said Fitzpatrick.

“The partnership with the neighborhood is really important,” he said.

The prison, which houses medium- and minimum-security inmates and serves as the state’s intake/reception facility, does not meet modern security standards. Through the last several decades, the facility has been built piecemeal and features nooks and crannies that make observation of prisoners difficult, according to the department’s director of operations, Gary LaPlante.

“It has poor sight lines,” he said. A more modern, open-concept design would “allow for better visibility in certain areas, and thereby it creates a safer environment for staff and prisoners.”

Programming and treatment for the inmates would also be improved as part of the project. LaPlante said an expanded facility would provide more space for the department to treat a larger population.

“For our substance abuse programming we have about 40 beds,” he said, as an example. “We would be more than doubling the amount of prisoners that are provided that type of treatment.”

According to LaPlante, Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport is slated to close if the prison renovation is approved. The expansion in Windham would mean those inmates and staff would move to the new prison, he said.

In July 2002, the department built a 70-bed women’s unit on the site, but the female inmate population continues to increase and has begun taking over some of the male beds at correctional center.

“The need for female beds is so significant,” LaPlante said. “It’s not a good security practice to have the male and female populations so close to each other,” he added.

Fitzpatrick said construction of the $10 million re-entry facility, which began in late November, is ahead of schedule. Once built, the facility will ease the state’s overcrowding of female inmates and provide better services for the female population.

“The contractors are telling us that because of the mild weather, they will be able to build right through the winter,” said Fitzpatrick. “We were targeting February-March of 2017, (but) it looks like it might be closer to next fall (when) we will be able to open that facility.”

During the bidding process, the project came in under budget, said Fitzpatrick, which will allow the department to build a 96-bed facility. The original plan was for 72 beds.

During the meeting, officials also discussed possibly building a new men’s re-entry center across from the women’s re-entry site, which raised concerns by residents.

Windham Town Council Chairwoman Donna Chapman suggested building the men’s and women’s facilities on the same side of River Road. Locating the men’s re-entry center on the opposite side would take away some of the hay fields used by the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, she said. She also foresees it causing traffic issues.

“I think we are going to have more incidences there than we have now on River Road,” Chapman said.

Overall, though, she and other residents give a thumbs-up the department’s most recent concept.

“This is much more eye-appealing than what I’ve seen on the sides of interstates,” Chapman said.

The women’s re-entry project includes a range of housing levels across three medium-security units, a 40-space parking lot, new driveways and drop-off areas, a delivery loop, new sidewalks, and the extension of existing utilities. The facility, which was designed by SMRT of Portland, will also offer more rehabilitative programs and assisted-living beds for aging inmates.

According to LaPlante, it will replace the 64-bed Southern Maine Re-Entry Facility in Alfred, which the department leases.

Landry/French Construction Co. of Scarborough broke ground on a new $10 million women’s re-entry facility owned by the Maine Department of Corrections in late November. The new facility on River Road is going to include 96 beds and accommodate the growing female inmate population.David Lay, an architect with SMRT of Portland, hired by the Maine Department of Corrections to design a new prison facility, explains the newest proposal during a meeting Dec. 16.

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