Prisoners as commodities

Critics slam Governor Baldacci’s plan to ship Maine inmates out of state to a for-profit company
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 25, 2007

Democratic Governor John Baldacci’s proposal to ship 125 Maine prisoners 2000 miles to a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) lockup in the Oklahoma boondocks has run into a chainsaw of criticism within his party. Critics are raising questions, too, about the appropriateness of a corporation lobbying the Legislature to imprison human beings for profit. The lobbyist for the private prison company is James Mitchell, a close Baldacci advisor, campaign contributor, and fundraiser.

Department of Corrections officials say the transfers, of inmates from the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, would ease prison overcrowding, which they say they are mostly concerned about because it is a danger to guards. The department expects to have 2200 prisoners by year’s end, with 1950 beds for them.

The Democratically controlled Legislature is discussing the transfer as part of the budget. But if the Legislature takes too long to resolve the issue, Baldacci’s office says he may use his emergency powers, which it is researching, to move the prisoners.

“Some legislators would hit the roof” if Baldacci moved too fast, says Jeremy Fischer, House Appropriations Committee chairman, though it is not certain if they could do anything. In an e-mail, Fischer adds: “I’m not convinced that Maine does need to send prisoners out of state.”

His counterpart, Senate Appropriations chairwoman Margaret Rotundo, says if Baldacci acted on his own, “Many of us would have significant concerns.” She is unsure if the governor has the legal authority to act by himself.

She and other legislative leaders say they anticipate a special committee drawn from members of the Appropriations and Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committees will look at alternatives to Baldacci’s plan.

Even on the Criminal Justice Committee, which supports the request, House chairman Stanley Gerzofsky does so “only as a last resort.”

He sits on a Council of State Governments criminal-justice panel, and he believes the Kentucky-based national think tank could help Maine solve its prison problems.

The council has worked with Connecticut to reduce the number of people sent to prison for probation violations and to furnish more drug and mental health treatment for people released from prison, plus more support for them in finding jobs and housing. As a result, Connecticut’s inmate numbers have dropped in the past few years. On April 19, Vermont leaders announced a bipartisan effort to resolve their state-pocketbook-busting prison population crisis by working with the council to go down the same path as Connecticut.

The opponents’ view
Groups opposed to Baldacci’s plan stress the need for immediate and long-range actions to relieve overcrowding.

Zachary Heiden, of the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), suggests “supervised release” for nonviolent offenders. Also, the governor could commute sentences for model inmates, he says. In an e-mail, Richard Snyder, of the Maine Council of Churches, says “hiring as few as three additional probation officers and assigning a normal load of new probationers from county jails to each would free up more than enough beds [in the jails] to house those prisoners slated to be sent out of state.”

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