January 15, 2013

LePage: Borrow $100 million for prison project

State officials say the project, which would demolish most of the prison's buildings, is needed because of badly outdated facilities.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — Most of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham will likely be rebuilt if lawmakers approve the LePage administration's proposed budget for the next two years – which asks for $100 million in borrowing for the project.

click image to enlarge

This file photo shows the security building at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Most of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham would be rebuilt if the LePage administration's proposed budget for the next two-year cycle – which asks for $100 million in bonding to pay for the project – goes through.

Jack Milton / Staff Photographer

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The proposal comes as legislators face three budget shortfalls, and more than $100 million in voter-approved bonds dating back to 2009 haven't been issued. Gov. Paul LePage has cited the need for Maine's fiscal health to improve before he will authorize most of the borrowing.

State officials say the project is being proposed because of dated facilities at the prison, which is composed of buildings that were built piecemeal into a campus over decades.

But Jim Mackie, spokesman for AFSCME Council 93, the union that represents Maine corrections employees, said he hasn't heard that.

He said he sees it as Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte's main objective: to increase efficiency at the expense of employees.

Under preliminary plans, eight of the prison's 11 buildings – all built two decades ago or longer – would be demolished, said Jody Breton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

"From the road, everything you see will be gone," she said.

Breton said the state is considering "tomorrow's capacity" for the new, larger center – perhaps 1,000 inmates, but that won't be known until design plans are finalized.

"It really is looking for an investment for years to come," she said.

Breton said the facility now has 622 inmates, 530 of whom are men. Most inmates at the minimum- and medium-security prison have been sentenced to five years or less, she said.

Plans call for three newer buildings – two housing units and a women's facility – to remain.

Breton said the state would move women from the Southern Maine Re-entry Center in Alfred, which is rented from York County, to the prison in Windham.

"The conditions of the facilities have deteriorated so bad that it's not cost-effective to maintain them," Breton said.

Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the correctional center, called it "a museum of the history of corrections in Maine."

He said the building where his office is was built in 1930, and other buildings are from the 1950s through the '90s.

"Every decade has a building," Burnheimer said. "When you add on new buildings, your hub is still a complex that is very outdated."

The center has added security cameras, Burnheimer said, but there was no mapped-out rhyme or reason to the scheme.

"We're forever adding cameras here, there and everywhere," he said. "With a new facility, you would have that mapped out – a blueprint of high-traffic areas that you would have camera backup."

For instance, he said, visitors to the women's facility must be driven a quarter-mile to get there. Burnheimer said buildings with too-small rooms have bad sightlines for supervising inmates.

"A new facility would potentially allow you to watch more people with the same amount of (employees) or possibly less," Burnheimer said, though he said that he doesn't think construction of the new facility would cause job losses.

But Mackie, the union spokesman, said Ponte's years in the private prison industry in other states shows what he wants.

"He came from the private prison, and that's what those big-deal warehouse prisons are about," he said. "His goal has always been to shut everything down and consolidate so he can run it with less people."

Breton said she estimates five or six buildings would replace the razed buildings, but the project is still in its design phase and wouldn't be built before 2016.

(Continued on page 2)

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