They can’t shut down for a night, and they can’t turn on the “no vacancy” sign.

The Maine State Prison is open 24-7.

While prison officials and lawmakers have a wish list of what they’d like to add to the correctional facilities, they know they have to face facts: first they have to house, secure and feed the existing population.

The Department of Correction’s budget has jumped 80 percent since 1999 – from $83.2 million to $149.2 million, while the inmate population went up 29 percent, from an annual average of 1,633 to 2,109.

The department’s budget is now the fourth-largest item in the state’s 2008-2009 general fund.

This year, $3.2 million was added to board prisoners at the county jails, $1.5 million was added for the new Bangor Re-Entry Center for women, and $500,000 was added for medical services.

Medical costs have seen the biggest increase percentage-wise, going from $67,890 in 1999 to $17.5 million this year, a 25,741 percent increase. Officials attribute this to an aging population and an increase in mentally ill inmates.

Lawmakers agree that prisons are not the place taxpayers ideally would like their money to go, and that sentiment creates an obstacle to getting necessary services.

“The conservatives say ‘What does it take to keep the place running so that people are surviving inside and not getting outside,'” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, who is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. “Frankly, I’m not confident that there’s a will to provide anybody in Corrections anything but the basics. There’s no will in the population, and there’s no will in the Legislature.”

It will take a major change in attitude to realize the need for treatment programs that keep people from reoffending, Diamond said.

“It’s going to have to be a campaign issue for a governor to bring that issue out and make that a real priority,” he added.

Mental Health

Some state officials call the corrections system the biggest mental health hospital in the state.

Lack of proper treatment for the mentally ill inside the facilities is one reason why many come back to prison after release, said Jeffrey D. Merrill, warden at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

The prison has 32 beds for male mentally ill inmates – the only facility with such a unit. There are none for women.

For the rest of the population, there are mental health counselors, but they are overburdened.

“It’s almost like people are running around, just putting out fires,” Merrill said.

Most of the increase in mentally ill inmates came after the Augusta Mental Health Institute, which had around 1,000 patients, closed. The existing Riverview Psychiatric Center holds less than 100.

“Patients that may have been there in the past have been streamlined in the community and hence, a lot of times, they get into trouble and end up in the prison system,” said Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Forecasting cost

Another budget-buster is new legislation that ultimately adds cost or overcrowding to the Corrections budget, such as mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, which keep inmates in prison longer, costing more and boosting the prison population.

In an effort to better predict and hold down the cost of new legislation, bills must include a price tag and get approved by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee before advancing.

Committee Senate Chairwoman Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the measure is meant to prevent funding problems down the line.

Appropriations Committee members share the sentiment that building new prisons is not the answer.

“It seems like the situation with the prisons is the funding always involves a crisis,” Rotundo said.

Before this session, bills didn’t include a fiscal note because it was considered too difficult to quantify the cost, Rotundo said. Now, 15 bills – including measures to strengthen penalties for sex crimes, increase sentences for habitual operating-under-the-influence offenders and change the penalties for stalking – are being held over so the Appropriations Committee can decide if the state can afford to implement them. If not, “How else to address the issues,” Rotundo asked.

For the second half of the current two-year state budget, Rotundo said the committee gave the department less funding than what officials said they needed in an effort to force the department to find a solution.

Staffing

At the Maine State Prison, working overtime isn’t optional for guards. If they’re short a man or two, somebody has to stay.

“Every guy here is a convicted felon,” said Sgt. Curtiss Doyle. “Working here is stressful, just by the sheer nature of the job.”

The situation has gotten better since the Legislature authorized new permanent and temporary positions this spring. Prior to that, some guards worked 60 to 70 hours a week. For some, the extra money is nice for a while, but ultimately it leads to a high turnover rate, Merrill said.

Overall, staffing levels have not kept up with the inmate population.

“We’ve always been behind in terms of staffing for correctional officers, primarily, but also program people,” Merrill said. “We’re playing catch-up.”

Also adding to the staffing problem is an aging population. Hospital transports are up, which means sometimes two or three guards will spend their shift in a hospital room with an ill prisoner.

Departmentwide, overtime more than doubled in the 2005-2006 budget year. Since then it’s stayed steady at nearly $1 million annually.

For this fiscal year, the Legislature approved nearly $4 million for additional permanent and temporary positions at various DOC facilities.

Programming

With a tight budget, prison officials are holding a magnifying glass to existing programs to identify “those things that have the biggest bang for the buck,” Merrill said.

From Sen. Diamond’s perspective, “Treatment is what we need to focus on, because that’s the key, I think, to helping people not be criminals.”

Another focus, some say, are the community-based programs that transition inmates back into society.

“What happens is that you don’t hear a lot about the success stories as much as you do about the failures,” Merrill said. “There are some success stories.”

Those stories are often the result of treatment and transition programs that are first to go on the chopping block when budget season rolls around.

Burnheimer said that his facility’s ultimate goal is to not have the prisoners come back after they’re released.

“Those programs cost, and sometimes with the budget strain in Augusta you have to make decisions on (whether to fund) daily operations … or long-term operations like programming. … You may get by on a daily basis without them, but there’s a long-term cost to avoiding programs that will keep people from coming back.”


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