AUGUSTA — Rep. Corey Wilson said he’s concerned that the inmates who will be moved from the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell to one in Warren won’t have the same kind of job opportunities they have now.
Wilson, R-Augusta, asked Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte several questions Monday during a meeting with the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Last month, Ponte told employees at the center that the 58 inmates — many of whom hold full-time jobs in the Hallowell area while they are finishing the last 12 months of their sentences — will be moved to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.
“How are we going to find these people work if we move them to Bolduc?” Wilson asked. “We may be moving them away from what is important to curb the recidivism rates.”
Ponte said the goal is to close the Hallowell center no later than July 1. He said the department ordered the move because the state Bureau of General Services is trying to sell the 63-acre campus.
He said the Winthrop Street center, in the former Stevens School, which opened in 1975, is in tough shape, with asbestos, lead paint and heating problems.
The department will continue to take inmates to jobs in central Maine until they are released from the program, while new enrollees will be placed in jobs in the Warren area, he said.
“I believe we can do just as good of a job in Bolduc that we did in Hallowell,” he said.
Hallowell officials and Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, said they were surprised by Ponte’s decision to close the center. Treat is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Hallowell City Hall to hear from residents about the state’s decision.
Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, said there’s been talk of closing the Hallowell center for years. He asked Jim Mackie, the union representative for center employees, why it came as a surprise.
“How many times do you cry wolf?” Mackie said. “We were surprised to get the call that quickly that now it was going to happen. Why has it now been so immediate that we have to get out of there?”
Dave Gott, a correctional officer who works at the Hallowell center, said while he agrees the program needs to be moved out of the aging buildings in Hallowell, he thinks the job prospects for inmates will be limited in Warren.
“I don’t see enough industry down there to give them jobs,” he said. “There are opportunities up here in Augusta to keep more people working than there is on the coast of Maine.”
Gott said the move has the staff at the center worried about picking up a commute to the new facility in Warren or the possibility of being transferred to other jobs in Windham.
“I’m sure my blood pressure is up 10 points,” he said. “For some people, it’s affecting their personal lives.”
About three-quarters of the inmates in the program work off site, while the others participate in supervised community service projects. A large group of the Hallowell inmates work at the Alfond Center for Health, the regional hospital under construction in north Augusta, Ponte said.
Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, said his town has benefited from the community service provided by the inmates, including work at the town office, fire department and fairgrounds.
“I’m concerned when the prisoners go, so does some of our help,” he said.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, asked Ponte if the department looked at other sites in central Maine, including the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus or other places in Hallowell.
“How much effort did we really put in trying to keep this here?” he asked.
Ponte said the department did look at some of the state-owned buildings on Augusta’s east side, but that they would have required millions of dollars in renovations. He also said the department got the impression that a pre-release facility might not be welcomed in Augusta.
While Ponte said he wasn’t sure who his staff spoke with, Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo said he remembers having a conversation with the department in late summer or early fall.
Bridgeo said he told the state officials they would need to pitch the idea to the City Council, and told them that he thought there would be some concern about bringing a facility to the city. For instance, he said the city would want to know if it would mean taking another building off the property tax rolls, if inmates released from the program were likely to end up on General Assistance, and whether it would mean convicted felons would be concentrated in Augusta.
“Augusta is already home to a huge number of social service agencies and forensic group homes and other institutions that require local resources to support,” he said.
Susan Cover — 621-5643