February 26

OUR OPINION: Maine Correctional Center does not need ‘shoot-to-kill’

Escapes shouldn’t be a captial offense for low-risk inmates.

Should trying to escape from the Maine Correctional Center be a capital offense? A proposal before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee could make it one.

Guards at the Maine Correctional Center, a medium- and minimum-security prison in Windham, currently have the right to shoot an escaping prisoner who has committed a dangerous crime or who is putting a staff member or another inmate in danger.

L.D. 1588 would allow Maine Correctional Center guards to shoot at any escaping inmate solely for the act of escape. The proposal offers a disproportionately severe punishment in response to a relatively low risk, and moving ahead with this bill would be a mistake.

Changing the law to allow Maine Correctional Center guards to shoot any and all fleeing prisoners presumes that prison escapes are a serious and escalating issue in Maine. But, according to Maine Department of Corrections data, they’re not. No prisoner has escaped from the Windham facility in at least the last 10 years, and there have been no escapes from the maximum-security Maine State Prison in Warren since 2002. These data are in line with national trends, which show a steady decline in state prison escapes since the early 1990s.

Granted, the Maine Correctional Center could nearly double its capacity — from 670 to about 1,200 beds — under a proposal by Gov. Paul LePage that is the focus of a forthcoming state Corrections Department feasibility study. The expanded prison, however, is meant to accommodate women and aging inmates, two growing segments of Maine’s prison population who are less likely to escape than young male prisoners.

Supporters of L.D. 1588 point to plans to use the Maine Correctional Center as the first stop for all prisoners, including maximum-security inmates, before they’re classified and placed in a facility. Indeed, a minority of correctional center inmates have been convicted of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. However, a great many more are there for less-serious crimes.

And none of them has been sentenced to death — Maine doesn’t have a death penalty for any offense, including trying to break out of prison. Thus, allowing guards to shoot fleeing inmates regardless of whether they present a threat to life amounts to imposing “the death penalty on someone trying to go over the fence,” Rep. Mark Dion, House chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, has said. (Dion, who sponsored the bill, has said he did so at the Corrections Department’s request because it consisted largely of housekeeping measures.)

L.D. 1588 shouldn’t advance any further in the Legislature. The limits that Maine law now puts on Maine Correctional Center guards’ use of deadly force are reasonable, and there’s no reason to expand guards’ authority to allow them to kill people who pose no imminent threat.

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