January 31, 2013

Legislators question decision to close Hallowell prison pre-release center

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

HALLOWELL -- State employee union representatives and some lawmakers are upset over what they feel was a unilateral decision by state corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to close the prison pre-release center in Hallowell.

click image to enlarge

The Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell has operated on the Stevens School Complex since 1979 and will be closing.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Hallowell forum planned

Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, is holding a forum Wednesday so residents can weigh in on the closing of the Central Maine Pre-Release Center at the Stevens School Complex in Hallowell.

The forum is at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium of Hallowell City Hall.

In January, the state Department of Corrections notified center staff that the center will close and the program will be relocated to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren. There are 58 inmates and 21 budgeted staff positions at the center.

Local food banks, the Windsor Fair and others benefited from the free labor provided by the inmates. Inmates have provided about 22,000 hours of work to local businesses and non-profit groups over the years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Treat said she wants to hear from residents about the impact of the move.

“What happens to this property is of intense interest to Hallowell residents and the neighborhoods surrounding the Stevens complex,” Treat said in a prepared statement. “It is important that going forward there is consultation with all who may be affected.”

Jim Mackie of the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which includes corrections workers, met Thursday with Senate Democrats to see if they could help delay the decision pending a public hearing.

"What we heard was the closure of the facility in Hallowell seems to be fast-tracked without any transparency or discussion," Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said. "I'm concerned because it seems this is a very effective and productive facility, so for it to be closed, (lawmakers) should have a better handle on why."

Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who sits on the Legislature's criminal justice committee, said he wasn't aware of resistance to the commissioner's decision to close the Central Maine Pre-Release Center.

The center is home to nearly 60 low-risk inmates enrolled in a work release program that allows them to do public restitution work within the community. The center is on a state-owned former school campus that also houses other state offices. The state was authorized to sell the 63-acre property a few years ago, but that has not happened.

Once the center closes, prisoners would be transferred to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, which is more than an hour away from Hallowell and is home to mostly minimum and medium security prisoners. The 21 employees could be moved to Bolduc or elsewhere.

Jody Breton, associate corrections commissioner and a spokeswoman for the department, said Ponte plans to appear before the criminal justice committee on Monday to answer questions about Hallowell. Breton said the prison release program would not end, but would be operated from Bolduc.

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who co-chairs the criminal justice committee, said the closure in Hallowell would be a huge blow to the communities that rely on the inmates' work.

The biggest concern, though, is that Ponte seemingly made the decision without holding a public hearing.

State Rep. Sharon Treat, who lives in Hallowell, plans to hold a public forum on Feb. 6 for people to voice concerns about the closure. It's not clear if anyone from the corrections department will attend.

The announcement to close the Hallowell center is one of several recent moves by the Department of Corrections that some people are questioning, including Ponte's plans to borrow $100 million to rebuild the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, turning it from a 650-capacity hodgepodge of buildings into a 1,400-capacity super prison.

Bill Diamond, a former state senator and secretary of state who lives in Windham, said there is more to that proposal than what Ponte and others are saying. Diamond said there were no local discussions prior to Ponte's announcement.

"It came out of nowhere," said Diamond, who doesn't believe the prison needs to be replaced.

Plummer, however, said he's keeping an open mind.

"I'm in the wait-and-get-the-facts mode," he said. "If there are significant savings by consolidation that would justify that level of borrowing, we should look at it. Right now, that facility is very staff inefficient."

Others, though, including Diamond, Gerzofsky and Mackie, are wary that ultimately, the plans would be to build a new mega-prison and then turn it over to a private operator. Ponte has an extensive background in private, for-profit prisons in other states, and Gov. Paul LePage has been supportive of privatizing some parts of corrections.

Ponte has assured lawmakers in the past that he has no plans to privatize corrections in Maine, but some remain skeptical.

(Continued on page 2)

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