AUGUSTA — Officials at the Maine Department of Corrections say they want to change the rules for attempted prison breaks at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
Unlike guards at the Maine State Prison in Warren, guards at the Windham facility are not allowed to shoot to kill if a prisoner makes a break for it.
But increasingly, the prisoners in Windham are more dangerous than they used to be and may pose a higher risk for escape, according to Corrections Department officials who spoke to the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee during a work session this month on LD 1588, a bill that would allow the change.
While the bill is still being worked on, lawmakers on the committee appear to be split along party lines, with Republicans in support of the change and Democrats opposing it.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a former sheriff and the committee's House chairman, said he doesn't think the change makes sense given Maine has seen very few prison breaks over the years.
Dion also said the idea that a prison guard would shoot somebody who is running away, especially if the guard had no idea what the person was in prison for, was troubling.
"When somebody is going over the fence, do you know what their classification is?" Dion asked Scott McCaffery, the DoC's director of classifications.
McCaffery, who was appearing before the committee to answer their questions, said, "You wouldn't know it at the time."
Dion said that meant the decision to use deadly force would be made "merely on the act of escape."
Dion said in law enforcement, police are trained to deploy deadly force only when there is immediate threat to life at hand or when the officer's own safety is in imminent danger.
But McCaffery noted the Windham prison was increasingly housing more dangerous convicts, including 18 who are considered maximum security prisoners.
"There's a pretty mixed variety of prisoners at that facility," McCaffery said. Also housed there are some federal prisoners and some boarders from county jails.
According to data provided to the Sun Journal by the DoC on Thursday, there have been 81 escapes from Maine correctional facilities since 2004.
Thirty of those were from adult facilities and 51 were from juvenile facilities.
Ten of the escapes listed in data provided by the DoC were from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, while only two were from the Maine State Prison in Warren. The most recent escape involved an inmate who walked away from a work crew at the low-security Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport on Wednesday. That inmate was taken into custody by probation officers in Lewiston on Thursday.
State Sen. Gary Plummer, R-Windham, questioned why his community wouldn't be afforded the same safeguards as those who live near the prison in Warren.
"I don't understand why the people in my community shouldn't be protected in the same way the people in the area of Warren are," Plummer said. "And for that matter, from the location of the Maine Correctional Center there are a lot more people within just a few minutes travel time. I believe that for the safety of the innocent people that could fall victim to an escapee that I must support this bill"
Other lawmakers, however, said Maine's history with very few prison escapes and no use of deadly force on escapees, even from the Maine State Prison in Warren, didn't justify extending the shoot-to-kill policy to Windham.
"I just can't see shooting somebody in the back who's running away from you, especially for all you know they are in there for kiting checks," Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, said.
Marks, a retired state trooper, said the use of deadly force for a prison break just didn't make sense when most escapees are taken back into custody within a short time and usually without violence.
But state Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, said he supported the change, including a disclosure requirement that inmates would have to sign acknowledging that if they made a break for it they could be shot dead. Wilson said that puts the responsibility on the inmate and not the guard and it also helps keep the surrounding community safe.
"If an inmate signs a paper at intake and they fully understand that if they cross that fence, they are accepting that risk that deadly force may or may not be used against them," Wilson said.
The committee is expected to take up the bill again next week before voting on whether to recommend its passage or defeat to the full Legislature.