July 13, 2020

Legislators see for themselves a corrections system in need

Thirty-seven teen-agers sat squeezed up to tables scratched with years of graffiti. One had a notebook, one had a magazine, four were sharing a deck of cards. The other Maine Youth Center inmates crammed into the room had nothing to do Monday morning.

They sat there, eyes empty, bored, as members of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee saw what school can be like: one adult watching over 37 listless adolescents.

Rep. George Kerr, D-Old Orchard Beach, the House chair of Appropriations, was one of many legislators who was anything but listless: He said, sarcastically, that the South Portland center is just a school that succcessfully graduates kids on to Thomaston and Warren, the higher-security prisons in the system.

Legislators grilled Department of Corrections officials, demanding answers as they toured the youth center and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in preparation for two public hearings next week on corrections spending plans, asking what will be done so that inmates don’t keep coming back. The governor’s emergency budget, to be heard Wednesday afternoon, asks for more than $3.5 million for prisons for two fiscal years. And a task force proposal to fix the system — a $160 million consolidation plan — will be heard Monday.

Corrections officials argue that the emergency spending is needed and is not a temporary fix, since teaching positions, for example, will continue into the future. They say the task force plan is unlike any other solution proposed for the notoriously inefficient corrections system, that it will completely change the system into one that is both cost-effective and preventive.

Legislators did not ask about the prisons that would be shut down under the task force plan, such as the ones in Bucks Harbor and Thomaston. That seemed to be the least of their worries.

Legislators were frustrated by the buildings. They saw an overheated room like a garret, jammed with 45 rickety beds where kids regardless of age sleep with one or two supervisors to oversee them. They saw a shower area like a carwash, where youths file through inches of stagnant brown water in order to get clean.

And they were frustrated by the programs. They heard that there were not enough teachers to provide the five hours of instruction a day that is required by law. They heard that more than half of the teen-agers at the youth center now have special needs, but that there is no longer a special education director there. They heard that 80 to 90 percent of the 240 inmates have problems with drugs or alcohol, but that there are only five contracted substance abuse counselors from independent agencies.

Legislators see a system that has such deep-rooted problems that they don’t want to just patch over, but they also don’t expect much support for a $160 million plan to make long-term changes.

Kerr said that Gov. Angus King made recommendations to cut back on staff based on projections of dropping inmate populations. “Those recommendations failed,” he told corrections officials. “That’s why there is a dilemma. Since I’ve been in the Legislature, since ’90, there have been two different [corrections] plans. If you think I’m going to support $160 million in new facilities you need your head examined.”

Rep. Elizabeth Townsend, D-Portland, said, “It’s clear that there’s a lot of need — what’s frustrating is we’re going to Band-Aid a little more.”

And Sen. Richard Bennet, R-Norway, said that “with the second-most-expensive corrections system in the country for adults, I thought the task force was going to solve that problem. It doesn’t make much sense for the solution to be $160 million in new spending to solve a cost problem. … Taxpayers have turned down a bunch of prison bonds in the past and will probably turn this one down too.”

Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said they are “looking at different financing options.” But the present cost of $73 per inmate per day could drop to $56, said department spokeswoman Denise Lord. Magnusson said the new program would be “light-years ahead” of any other plan he has seen for prisons, shutting down expensive old buildings and offering much more in treatment, counseling, education and job training for both youths and adults.

While many of the committee members went out of their way to say they trust Magnusson, the new commissioner, they also asked why they should pay for building based on inmate population projections that were inaccurate in the past. Magnusson said, “It’s not like we’re just pulling those numbers out of the sky — these are the national experts who are doing this.” He admitted that he is worried about what would happen in the few years while the new prisons were being built under the task force plan, since the prison population is projected to increase well beyond current capacity.

Scott, a corrections officer who declined to give his last name, said, “Something has to be done,” as he walked by a group of inmates standing around a basketball court. “They can’t just warehouse these guys forever. They’re doing nothing to help them. They don’t have enough beds, not enough programs, not enough education, not enough job skills.” They do teach sewing, he said, “but that don’t help too much in the state of Maine since all the mills closed down 20 years ago.”

Inside one of the classrooms, though, a legislator whispered, “This is the most productive thing we’ve seen all day.” A man in a white T-shirt tugged gently at the wheel of a sewing machine over checked canvas, working intently, a light overhead glinting on the gold cross at his neck, as another inmate swept up scraps of fabric from the floor behind him. Piles of foam and cloth surrounded chairs inmates were upholstering.

Inmates apply for the jobs in that classroom and in the one next door, where paper patterns and rolls of cloth were ready for workers to make prison uniforms and linens for the other centers in the corrections system. “I remember taking home ec back in eighth or ninth grade, I remember sewing, and I thought it would be good to learn some different stuff,” said Henry Cain, a 27-year-old graduate of Windham High School. He also liked the idea of getting more money — the jobs pay 30 to 50 cents an hour.

“For some people this is training for a job,” said another inmate, Carol, “but it’s also good for enthusiasm and self-esteem.” With 11 more years ahead of her in jail, she was happy just to find something else to do.

Cain has only two weeks left in Windham, then he will go to a pre-release center. “This is my third time in here so I get a little anxious,” he said, laughing.

When John Wildes, who had been sewing shirts with him, said he had never met his social worker in three years of incarceration, Cain said, “This place has changed a lot because of the budget, since ’92 when I was here. … Everything used to be a little bit easier. Now things are a little slow.”

Next summer, Cain will be free, opening up one bed in the overcrowded Maine prison system. Legislators wanted a final solution to the corrections problems that have plagued the state. Corrections officials want legislators to trust them with their plan to change past mistakes. And Cain wants a chance to show that he’s not a criminal.

“I’m not going back to [hometown] Windham,” he said, because people will expect him to get in trouble again. He’ll go somewhere new, he said. “But I need a little bit more of a chance. I think they need more programming to get you ready for the outside world, so you aren’t broke. Not just a few dollars, just enough to go to a store and do something stupid.”

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