Gov. Paul LePage is considering expanding the Maine Correctional Center in Windham to include a unit for forensic patients and an in-patient drug treatment facility.

The governor said during an appearance on the MPBN radio program “MaineCalling” on Thursday that he wants lawmakers to delay legislation already submitted to rebuild the aging Windham prison so he can replace the bill with something more comprehensive.

LePage did not outline what he had in mind, but two Republican lawmakers who recently met with the governor said Friday they believe his idea is to use the existing renovation plan for Windham and include a forensic unit, for psychiatric patients referred by the criminal justice system, and a drug treatment center. They didn’t know what the governor meant by treatment, which could be anything from a detox center to a long-term rehabilitation facility.

LePage’s communications director, Peter Steele, said Friday that the governor’s office was not ready to release details because discussions are ongoing, but he said the characterization by the lawmakers was accurate.

Lawmakers from both parties said they are open to the governor’s idea but wanted to see more details.

“I would say up until this point, the governor hasn’t seemed willing to engage on drug treatment, so if he is now, that’s a really positive thing,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who co-chairs the Health and Human Services Committee. “I hope he brings it soon so we can deliberate and give it the attention it deserves.”

Sen. Kimberly Rosen, R-Bucksport, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said her committee still would move forward with a Feb. 4 public hearing on the bill to fund an estimated $173 million renovation of the correctional center, but she said the governor’s idea is worth hearing.

“I think his thought is that if we’re already building there anyway, can we include something that addresses some of the drug treatment beds we need,” she said.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, co-chair of the human services committee, agreed with Rosen’s assessment of the governor’s idea, but said the details had not been fully fleshed out.

Lawmakers unanimously passed a drug bill this week that includes $1.2 million to fund 10 new drug agent positions and another $2.5 million for treatment, including a new drug detoxification center in northern or eastern Maine. Some of the treatment money also will fund projects run by jails or local police departments to help drug users connect with community-based treatment and recovery programs as an alternative to incarceration.

However, Democrats, Republicans and the governor all have stressed that the bill is just the first step in tackling the state’s drug crisis.

Rep. Lori Fowle, the Democratic chair of the criminal justice committee, agreed with Rosen that the public hearing should go forward.

“I don’t know where the governor is going, but I guess I look forward to seeing any proposal,” she said.

Although the governor didn’t release details of what a dedicated forensic patient unit might look like, that piece likely would help address ongoing problems at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. That hospital serves patients with severe mental illness, as well as forensic patients, who are charged with violent crime and awaiting competency determinations to stand trial, and also those who have been found not criminally responsible because of mental illness.

Riverview, in part because of the challenge of treating forensic patients, is experiencing staffing shortages and has been decertified by the federal government after an audit uncovered numerous problems, making the hospital ineligible for $20 million in federal funding annually.

The idea of housing a drug treatment facility as part of a prison complex is unusual. Rosen said she understands that people might be concerned about putting people who are seeking treatment for addiction in the same place as convicted criminals, but she said the conversation has merit.

Neither the governor in his radio remarks nor Steele on Friday provided a time line for when details would be released. The current legislative session is scheduled through mid-April.

“From the governor’s perspective, I’d like him to take the time he needs, but also make sure we have the time to debate it and not rush it through,” Brakey said.

As with most policy initiatives, the proposal could come down to funding. The $173 million price tag for rebuilding the prison already was a concern for some lawmakers, who postponed that bill at the end of last session because it came in late and they didn’t have enough time to review it thoroughly. Under the proposal, some buildings on the Windham campus would be demolished and others would be renovated. Construction already has begun on a $7 million, 72-bed re-entry center specifically for female prisoners. That project is separate from the $173 million renovation.

LePage, however, said in his radio appearance Thursday that it comes down to priorities. He thinks his priorities are “to the elder community, to children, to mental illness and with drugs, I include drugs in there.”

 


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