Sunday, March 2, 2014

Maine Correctional Center building options explored - By Michelle Libby

Building a new prison facility in Windham is a baby step closer to becoming a reality as a feasibility study was conducted and options were discussed on Thursday, February 20, when administration from the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) and local elected officials gathered across from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The discussion centered around the possible plan to build a new prison on land owned by MDOC surrounding the existing facility.

Also in attendance were corrections officers and neighbors from High Street which would be impacted by some of the tentative locations for the new building. 

The way the land looks now.

“The plans are that Maine Department of Corrections will build a new prison using existing revenue and have money left over. They are here to prove to us it’s a good idea,” said Senator Gary Plummer, who is also a member of the criminal justice and public safety committee. 

SMRT Architecture Engineering Planning Interiors Energy with Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, LLC, worked together to prepare an independent feasibility study. The four conclusions reached by the study were that: 1. There is a positive economic benefit to the State of Maine and the project is self-funded. 2. This project will enable MDOC to do “more with less.” 3. The alternative to this plan of action will be more costly. 4. This project positively realigns the system capacity. 

Option 1
Although this will affect Windham directly, MDOC is working to reduce costs across all of its facilities. It would close the Downeast Correctional Center, no longer rent the building housing the Southern Maine Women’s Re-entry Clinic and downsize Charleston Correctional Facility. 

Doing these changes avoids capital improvements that will have to be done in the new few years. According to Arthur Thompson from SMRT there will be a positive cost saving to the State of Maine of approximately $8.5 million per year. After 17 years the project would be completely paid off, he said. 

Option 2
Maine has the ninth highest per diem cost for prisons in the country. This project would lower that by 14.3 percent. There would also be increased safety for the public, staff and inmates and the reentry system using existing facilities would be enhanced, Thompson said. 

There would not be a large increase in the number of beds at the facility, but the types of beds would be different. There would be an increase from zero to 85 beds for assisted living inmates who are elderly.
“We can’t continue to put our fingers in the dyke for these facilities,” Thompson said. 

Option 3
When asked what would be the worst thing that could happen with this project, the public was told that doing nothing was the biggest issue. The State of Maine can’t really afford to keep the status quo.
It was also estimated that $118 million would be added to the local income. 

The three sites proposed include one being in front of the existing buildings, facing River Road, one on the opposite side of Mallison Falls Road near River Road and the final and least expensive option would close off High Street and have the prison straddle the road. 

“We need to maintain a facility while we build a facility,” said Thompson. Who said that they couldn’t build on the existing site for that reason. The plans shown were not site plans, but rough layouts to see if the proposed building size would fit on the land parcels. 

The second option would have the advantages of higher elevation and better soils. However, there was not as much buffering for existing residences. The third option has the highest position which helps with gravity sewer that is moved to the far side of the Presumpscot River. It would also make High Street a dead end. 

Representative Jane Pringle asked where the $8.5 million in savings would come from and she was told from increased staff efficiency. Although there will be 13 additional positions in the Windham facility. There will be less staff in the MDOC as a whole. The jobs would change to meet the needs of the new inmates including mental illness. The correctional center will house a whole range of custody levels all in medium security beds, said MDOC commissioner Joe Ponte.

“Many (inmates) come to us in crisis and need to be stabilized,” Thompson said. 

“This is a feasibility plan at this point,” said Ponte.

“There are still people who think this is a reformatory. We’ve grown up and people don’t know it,” said Frank Dube. The inmates housed at the correctional center range from sex offenders to murderers. 

The timeline for the project is approximately three years to completion after it goes through the legislature and the bidding process, said Ponte. 

Ponte called the plan a more efficient system. He also said that other new prison facilities have only had a positive impact on neighboring real estate. “It provides people with a sense of security,” he said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Dube. 

“This is not a done deal. It will require a great deal of work with the Town of Windham. It’s still a big if,” said Plummer. “The community is a real priority. We will not do anything that will have a negative impact.” 

“It’s not as safe as it used to be (for corrections officers),” said Sergeant Gary Beaulieu. “We need to not deplete (the staff). We really want to see security and staffing. We’re in a 24-hour a day, seven days week business.” 

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