Thursday, May 23, 2013
By Keith Edwards firstname.lastname@example.org
AUGUSTA — Some inmates at the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell could move to Kennebec County jail in Augusta after the center closes next month, under a proposal state and county corrections officials are discussing.
This photo taken on Jan. 10 shows the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell.
Staff file photo by Joe Phelan
State officials also have inquired about whether Augusta would be interested in being home to a new pre-release center, and potentially take all the state inmates now housed in Hallowell, and possibly others from elsewhere in the state as well.
City officials said they think the pre-release center provides a good program but worry that residents may be wary of adding it to Augusta, already home to the county jail, Riverview Psychiatric Center, and group homes housing mental health patients who have committed violent criminal acts. The pre-release program is for felons nearing the end of their prison terms and re-entering society.
City councilors say they can't answer the question of whether the city might be interested in having a new pre-release center in Augusta without more information about the possible location and the inmates it would house. They want input from residents too.
"We need to make sure our constituents are heard on this," said Mayor William Stokes, who is also head of the criminal division of the Maine Attorney General's Office. "Trust me, I think pre-release programs, if properly operated, are a great correctional tool that allows inmates to transition into the community, gives them skills and provides a valuable service to the community. And I don't think any of us question the outstanding work they've done for the city of Augusta. But my real concern is do the citizens of Augusta have a sort of fatigue of being the default site for facilities, state facilities, where no other community steps up."
Stokes, speaking Thursday night as councilors discussed the issue with Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, also referred to the closure last year of two group homes that housed forensic patients on the state-owned former Augusta Mental Health Institute grounds. After the homes on the state's east side campus closed, the patients — some of whom had been found not criminally responsible for violent criminal acts — were moved into two group homes on Glenridge Drive and Green Street.
Stokes said some city residents are "still reeling from being what they consider blindsided by the state" because the patients were moved without prior notice or public input.
A proposal Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty is discussing with state corrections officials could keep some inmates now at the pre-release center in Hallowell in central Maine, at the Kennebec County jail in Augusta.
The proposal, which Liberty plans to discuss with Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte on Monday, would move inmates who were from the central Maine area to the county jail, which also has a pre-release program. Those inmates then would transition back into society from there.
Liberty said there are now 39 inmates at the Hallowell pre-release center, five of whom are from central Maine.
The pre-release center can hold about 60 inmates.
Liberty said he was told the rest of the inmates now at the Hallowell center would move to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.
The preliminary proposal stems from a philosophy that it would be better for inmates to transition from imprisonment through pre-release and back into society in their own communities, Liberty said. He said the program could expand later to include more county jails taking pre-release prisoners from their areas.
Liberty said the proposal also could result in some state employees from the pre-release center in Hallowell also coming to the Kennebec County jail, to oversee the state prisoners.
"They'd remain state employees," Liberty said, "running their own operation out of our facility."
Some city councilors expressed concern that the jail might not have the space for inmates from the pre-release center.
Liberty said Friday said the jail has the capacity to take additional prisoners and there would be no additional cost to the county or its taxpayers, because the state would pick up the cost. He said county jails in Maine are now in a unified system, so when one has space for prisoners and another is overcrowded, they can move the prisoners to the less-crowded jail.
Liberty said the jail has had a pre-release work program for about 20 years. In that program, inmate work crews perform supervised work such as cleaning public cemeteries or painting buildings, as do inmates at the pre-release center in Hallowell.
He said for every two days of work, county inmates get one day off their sentences.
The work performed by inmates at the pre-release center, which Wilson said amounted to thousands of hours a year, is one reason many area residents have advocated keeping it in Hallowell.
Legislators also have expressed concern about the planned April 15 closure of the facility.
However, the state wants to sell the Stevens School complex where the pre-release center is located, and Wilson said state officials fear having a facility of inmates, even those transitioning back to society, as the anchor tenants of the complex would make it harder to sell.
Wilson said the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is interested in hearing whether any central Maine community would be interested in being the location of a pre-release center.
Dean Lachance, executive director of Bread of Life in Augusta, which runs a soup kitchen, a shelter and housing programs, said inmates from the pre-release center have worked countless hours on the nonprofit organization's buildings and grounds and "do amazing things for our organization."
At a recent public meeting in Hallowell, more than 50 people spoke about the pre-release center' benefits and seemed unanimous in their support of it remaining at its current location. Lachance said he was struck by the fact that none of them suggested that if it has to move, it move elsewhere in Hallowell.
"Someone stood up and spoke about all the benefits of the program, then said, 'Why can't it move to Augusta?'" Lachance said. "I was shocked. If they truly want them to stay, the thing to do is rally as a community and look to find a place that would be feasible for them to stay."
Scott Fish, a Department of Corrections spokesman, said Friday that date is "fluid" because the department is open to considering other locations for it in the Augusta area.
"I understand the city of Augusta already does a lot," said Wilson said, the state representative. He noted that Augusta is already home to the county jail and the location of numerous nonprofit organizations, which aren't required to pay property taxes because it is the state capital.
"I need to know if my community supports the idea" of having a pre-release center in Augusta, Wilson said. "My feeling is the community may not like having that facility here, but I feel that may change if there were more education about the type of facility we're dealing with. We're not talking about another jail here. These are minimum-security inmates. They don't pose a threat, generally, to society in any way. These individuals are working on a daily basis, are at the end of their sentences and looking to be released."
City Manager William Bridgeo told councilors and Wilson he was "hearing a lot of open-mindedness about the whole conversation," and said he would begin seeking data about the pre-release center before considering scheduling a public forum to discuss the concept and what community members think of it.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647