If prison overcrowding were the problem, then acquiring more space could be the answer.

But when it comes to Maine’s female prison population, overcrowding isn’t the problem – it’s only a symptom. The question is not, “Where do we put all these inmates?” but, “Why do we have so many?”

The number of women held at Maine Correctional Center in Windham has risen from only 25 in 2002 to 135 in 2016 to more than 220 as of April, largely fueled by the opioid epidemic and an overly punitive criminal justice system.

As such, the women’s side of the prison is overcrowded, with cots shoved into every open space. About half of the women are there for drug crimes, and most are victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault, yet prison officials say there is no room for programming to help them deal with substance abuse or trauma, or to gain skills and coping mechanisms to use to better their lives.

What’s more, some of those women now live in temporary housing that was originally built for men. All of them are in a facility whose staff and policies are centered on dealing with the prison’s 550 or so male inmates.

The conditions at the prison – for both men and women – are appalling. The inability to offer women much of anything in the way of educational programming is worrisome, and counterproductive if we want to cut down on recidivism and help the formerly incarcerated lead productive lives.

However, while the solution proposed by the Department of Corrections may solve those immediate problems, it would also perpetuate a lot of what is wrong with the criminal justice system.

A legislative committee Wednesday heard testimony on L.D. 1723, which would transfer about 120 incarcerated women to empty space at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the state’s only youth prison.

The DOC controls the prisons, so it makes sense for the department to offer a solution that utilizes their own resources.

But simply moving inmates doesn’t contend with the fact that most of them don’t belong in prison, and everybody would be a lot better off if they weren’t sent there in the first place.

Incarceration doesn’t make sense for all but the worst violators. Prison causes lasting trauma. It takes people whose mental illness and substance use disorder form the basis of their actions and fails to treat them. It sends them back out into the community without the skills or resources to make a go of it.

There would be better outcomes for incarcerated women – and lower costs and far more benefits for communities – if a prison sentence were the last resort for crimes committed under the throes of substance use disorder, and informed by prior trauma and abuse. For many lower-level crimes, counseling, treatment and an opportunity to atone would be more effective, and less costly.

If the women at Maine Correctional Center are moved to a larger space, history shows the system will fill it. There will be more Mainers unnecessarily shoved into a system that is failing them, more traumatized by incarceration, more taken away from their children, more left following their sentence with no housing, no job and few prospects.

As lawmakers contend with a lack of space for incarcerated women, they should focus on cutting back the number of Mainers who are put through this counterproductive experience, not debating how to house more of them.


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