AUGUSTA – The state prison system is overcrowded by nearly 300 inmates, and immediate action is needed to ease the pressure on the staff and facilities, Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson told a legislative committee Tuesday.
“We’ve reached the emergency level,” Magnusson told the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “If we don’t deal with this, I’m afraid of staff getting hurt.”
Magnusson said steps have been taken to make room for extra inmates in the adult facilities, which he said are over their rated capacities by 293 systemwide. If nothing is done, that number is expected to increase, he told lawmakers.
The crowding is taking a major toll on staff, who are working so much overtime that some are sleeping in their cars after their shifts because they’re too tired to drive home, said the commissioner, who met with 250 corrections staff on Monday to hear their frustrations.
“They’re at the point of giving up,” said Magnusson, adding that he has had to cut back on mandatory staff training in order to save money.
Responding to a question by a committee member, Magnusson said the number of inmates is rising for several reasons, the biggest being enhanced sentences mandated by the Legislature for some crimes.
The system also is seeing a sharp increase in the number of offenders sent to the prisons each day for relatively short sentences, he said. Crowding is not an issue in the state’s juvenile facilities.
To address crowding in the adult facilities, Magnusson suggested a mix of options, including sending about 125 inmates to an out-of-state facility and using a vacant dorm at the minimum-security Charleston Correctional Facility, which would require additional staffing.
Also, more inmates would be placed under supervised community confinement and in county jails, and more female offenders who are nearing the end of their sentences would be placed in transitional housing.
The changes to make more room have an estimated cost of $1.3 million – and maybe less – for May and June, the two months remaining in fiscal 2007. The estimated annual cost for fiscal 2008 is $7.8 million, Magnusson said.
The legislative committee will review figures before sending them to the Appropriations Committee so they can be added to the governor’s proposed budget, said Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, the committee co-chairman.
Of the measures advanced by the commissioner, the plan to send inmates to private, out-of-state facilities generated most of the discussion. While Magnusson has outlined which inmates would get priority for transfer, he said he sees the move as an opportunity to get rid of the Maine system’s “bad actors” first.
Those include members of a burgeoning Aryan Brotherhood, which is considered the dominant white supremacist gang in prisons, and individuals who are identified with inmate violence and extortion, Magnusson said.
In response to a committee member’s question, Magnusson said corrections officials are aware of 13 gangs inside the Maine State Prison in Warren. Officials believe an increase in tattooing activity points to a rise in prison gang activity.
“There are some real gang affiliations that are connected to other states and other prisons,” the commissioner said.
Magnusson said crowding has forced many inmates to wait longer to be enrolled in programs and training.
One of the committee members, Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said crowding frustrates attempts to rehabilitate inmates because they cannot be rewarded with programs or more favorable cell space.