WINDHAM — A man who had spent a year and a half behind bars thought he knew a little bit about life in prison. But he never knew the full horrors until he was put in a 12-by-7-foot cell with George Gatcomb Jr.
The first night, Gatcomb slapped him, threw him down and raped him. Gatcomb forced the victim to perform a sex act three nights later, before guards were alerted and the victim was removed.
The prisoner ultimately won a $36,000 settlement from the state last year, but overcrowding in Maine’s five prisons continues to force corrections officers to make difficult decisions each day.
There are four prisoners in some cells at the Maine Correctional Center, where the rape occurred.
“The entire system is overcrowded,” said Maine Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson. “We’ve violated all of the standards as far as the number of prisoners per square footage.”
With the prison system keeping 200 prisoners more than it was designed to hold, Magnusson sees the construction of a new 1,000-bed prison in Warren as an answer to overcrowding that will save money at the same time.
But a bill that would stop its construction comes before the Criminal Justice Committee in Augusta on Wednesday.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James Skoglund, D-St. George, said the creation of more cell space could create a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“When you have a good prison, I think the natural impulse will be to fill it and to keep it filled,” he said. “When we don’t have space, we have to think about … better ways that we could steer people away from prison.”
Sally Sutton, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said the problem could be addressed with sentencing rules that allow more alternate punishments.
“Those prison beds are a scarce resource, and we should only be using them for people that cannot be punished in other ways,” she said.
Magnusson said the space is needed for the prisoners already in the system. He also noted that Maine has one of the highest per-prisoner costs in the country and said a larger prison would cut costs by ending the duplication of services among many smaller facilities.
The current plan calls for the new prison to replace the Charleston Correctional Facility, in addition to the aged Maine State Prison in Thomaston, for a net gain of about 500 prison beds.
The cost per prisoner would drop from $74 to $62 a day, Magnusson said, saving money for programs including substance abuse treatment and more work programs for inmates.
The goal is to give each incoming prisoner a separate cell while they are being classified for risk, Magnusson said. Part of that is a criminal record check, something that can take several weeks.
“You really need to single-cell until you get the prior record of the person,” he said. “You might get somebody in for burglary, but they may have a history of aggravated assault and murder.”
But the goal remains elusive. Because of overcrowding, officials at the Maine Correctional Center are still locking up incoming prisoners together before finding out how dangerous they are.
“Due to the overflow, we’ve had to double them up,” said Superintendent James Clemons.
Gatcomb, who had been in prison since 1976 for slitting a man’s throat, was not awaiting classification, Magnusson said. It’s not unusual for inmates convicted of serious crimes to be given minimum security as time passes, he added.
The man assaulted and raped by Gatcomb seven years ago did not respond to messages left with his Portland lawyer, Stuart Tisdale.
Magnusson said such prison rapes are rare. But Tisdale said he has been told of rapes, most of which go unreported because prisoners rarely complain to prison authorities about such incidents.
Clemons said staffers at the Maine Correctional Center are doing what they can to spot potential troublemakers and keep them separated.