April 07, 2020

In praise of Band-Aids

Juvenile offenders goofing off on a Monday morning, reading magazines and playing cards. Adult inmates milling around a basketball court while the law-abiding work. A $160 million construction plan that has State House support ranging from cool to non-existent.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Maine’s corrections system, while surely in need of a massive amount of bricks and mortar, first needs a major infusion of people, of staff that can give inmates the education, training and counseling they need to rejoin society.

The $160 million rebuilding plan presented last month by a gubernatorial task force on corrections facilities has its place — in a perfect world.

Back in the real world, Gov. King accepted the plan with reservations, suggesting a phased-in approach, noting that voters historically have not been at all generous toward prison bonds and rightly recommending $3.5 million in emergency funding to address the most egregious problems.

Rep. George Kerr, House chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is considerably more blunt. During a recent tour of prison facilities, after observing the idleness and reflecting upon the overly rosy inmate population projections that helped get Maine in this jam, the Old Orchard Democrat said anyone who thinks the first order of business is to spend $160 million needs a thorough mental examination.

Now the issue falls in the lap of the Criminal Justice Committee, which will dig in to the rebuilding plan as soon as the weather allows legislative hearings to resume. The committee would do well to start by acknowledging what King and Kerr already have correctly observed: a proposal to spend $160 million building two new prisons so two existing ones can be closed has a slim chance of getting through the full Legislature, a zero chance of getting past the voters; the problem of dilapidated facilities and utterly inadequate programs took decades to develop and won’t be solved overnight; the governor, lawmakers and the Department of Corrections must work together to identify the most urgent needs, to fund specific remedies and then to move on to the next problem.

Clearly, the most pressing needs are at the Youth Center, where the dorms are hideous, the education and counseling programs utterly inadequate, and the potential for turning lives around the greatest. The bulk of the governor’s emergency spending package focusses upon staffing the juvenile system and the Legislature should support it, but it must be seen as just a start.

To see how out of whack things are on the adult side, look no further than the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where the only real occupational training program is in sewing. This no doubt benefits those inmates planning to emigrate to Guatemala or Singapore after release, but others find their time better spent shooting hoops.

Other states have long recognized that the best rehabilitation programs teach inmates the Three Rs and a work ethic and let employers teach adequately prepared new hires the specifics of the job. With the Criminal Justice Committee leading the way, the Legislature must see that the Corrections Department has the funding to develop modern, useful inmate programs before it considers building or closing anything.

This step-by-step method of identifying, prioritizing and fixing what’s broken is often criticized as the Band-Aid approach. Critics should remember, though, that Band-Aids are good things. They stop the bleeding. They prevent infection. And, they’re affordable.

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