HALLOWELL — State employee union representatives and some lawmakers are upset over what they feel was a unilateral decision by state corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to close the prison pre-release center in Hallowell.
Jim Mackie of the local chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which includes corrections workers, met Thursday with Senate Democrats to see if they could help delay the decision pending a public hearing.
“What we heard was the closure of the facility in Hallowell seems to be fast-tracked without any transparency or discussion,” Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said. “I’m concerned because it seems this is a very effective and productive facility, so for it to be closed, (lawmakers) should have a better handle on why.”
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, who sits on the Legislature’s criminal justice committee, said he wasn’t aware of resistance to the commissioner’s decision to close the Central Maine Pre-Release Center.
The center is home to nearly 60 low-risk inmates enrolled in a work release program that allows them to do public restitution work within the community. The center is on a state-owned former school campus that also houses other state offices. The state was authorized to sell the 63-acre property a few years ago, but that has not happened.
Once the center closes, prisoners would be transferred to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, which is more than an hour away from Hallowell and is home to mostly minimum and medium security prisoners. The 21 employees could be moved to Bolduc or elsewhere.
Jody Breton, associate corrections commissioner and a spokeswoman for the department, said Ponte plans to appear before the criminal justice committee on Monday to answer questions about Hallowell. Breton said the prison release program would not end, but would be operated from Bolduc.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who co-chairs the criminal justice committee, said the closure in Hallowell would be a huge blow to the communities that rely on the inmates’ work.
The biggest concern, though, is that Ponte seemingly made the decision without holding a public hearing.
State Rep. Sharon Treat, who lives in Hallowell, plans to hold a public forum on Feb. 6 for people to voice concerns about the closure. It’s not clear if anyone from the corrections department will attend.
The announcement to close the Hallowell center is one of several recent moves by the Department of Corrections that some people are questioning, including Ponte’s plans to borrow $100 million to rebuild the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, turning it from a 650-capacity hodgepodge of buildings into a 1,400-capacity super prison.
Bill Diamond, a former state senator and secretary of state who lives in Windham, said there is more to that proposal than what Ponte and others are saying. Diamond said there were no local discussions prior to Ponte’s announcement.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Diamond, who doesn’t believe the prison needs to be replaced.
Plummer, however, said he’s keeping an open mind.
“I’m in the wait-and-get-the-facts mode,” he said. “If there are significant savings by consolidation that would justify that level of borrowing, we should look at it. Right now, that facility is very staff inefficient.”
Others, though, including Diamond, Gerzofsky and Mackie, are wary that ultimately, the plans would be to build a new mega-prison and then turn it over to a private operator. Ponte has an extensive background in private, for-profit prisons in other states, and Gov. Paul LePage has been supportive of privatizing some parts of corrections.
Ponte has assured lawmakers in the past that he has no plans to privatize corrections in Maine, but some remain skeptical.
“I’ve asked him that pointedly, and it’s a question I’ll keep asking,” Gerzofsky said.
Ponte’s dismissal of Patricia Barnhart, who had been warden at the Maine State Prison in Warren since late 2009, also came as a surprise.
Ponte and other corrections officials have declined to comment on Barnhart’s firing because the two sides are still negotiating a severance agreement. Attempts to reach Barnhart were not successful.
“I can’t discuss specifics, but my thought is that the commissioner did things correctly,” said Plummer, adding that lawmakers should not make a habit of questioning personnel decisions by department leaders.
Gerzofsky said he’s not concerned about Barnhart’s dismissal, either, although he said if he received more information about the circumstances, he would certainly question the commissioner.
Mackie, though, sees Barnhart’s ouster differently.
“People have asked me why the union is speaking on behalf of management, but there are so few managers willing to work with union and its employees and she was one of them,” he said. “I think [her dismissal] goes hand in hand with what (Ponte) wants to do: replace people with those who will do what he says.”
Judy Garvey, co-founder of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said she’s been told Barnhart was not a strong leader and could not control her staff, many of whom predated their boss by decades.
“The commissioner has been trying to clean house and reform the system, but he can’t micromanage each prison,” Garvey said.
Barnhart was embroiled in a controversy in the summer of 2011 when she bought 5 acres of state-owned land in Thomaston at a price well below value. After an investigation, the attorney general’s office ruled that the sale was void because it violated conflict of interest laws. Barnhart was ordered to sell the property back to the state for the same price she paid.