ST. GEORGE, Maine — The spring breeze smelled like mud season, wood smoke and fresh sawdust as carpenter Damian Benner bent over a wooden door, his face full of concentration.

The Damariscotta man was part of a crew toiling hard to get the Blueberry Cove 4-H camp ready for summer. The bustle and industry of the scene made it seem just the same as other building sites across the state.

But it wasn’t.

“I’m not getting paid, but I’m giving back,” Benner said last week at the scenic coastal camp. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life. And that is the most important thing.”

Benner, 33, is serving a six-year jail sentence for drinking and driving. He was one of the first to be sentenced under “Tina’s Law,” the law passed to keep repeat offenders off the road for at least five years. Benner is also a student in the Building Trades Program at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, a minimum-security prison for men that aims to prepare inmates for their eventual return to regular life.

That return, prison officials say, is more certain than the facility’s funding — especially considering the shaky state of the Maine economy and this year’s $838 million budget shortfall.

Back in January, the Maine State Department of Corrections was among the agencies that would have been hit hardest by the proposed two-year budget. The budget aimed to reduce Bolduc’s inmate population by half and sharply cut back on programming, including the entire mental health department and the Building Trades program.

“It would have devastated us. We’re all about rehabilitation,” said Ray Felt, the unit manager at Bolduc. “Take substance abuse and mental health counseling away, and [inmates] aren’t working on what brought them here.”

A month ago, however, legislative pressure helped inspire the department to find another cost-cutting plan that would not affect facilities in Bolduc, Charleston, Machiasport and Windham so severely.

“It will, hopefully, keep us open,” Felt said. “But it’s still not guaranteed.”

Waiting game

While Felt and other Bolduc employees are eager to learn what the Legislature decides to do about Maine’s prison funding, they’re not the only ones who have a vested interest in the matter.

Take inmate William McNeil, who has served three years of a four-year sentence for theft, and who spent some of that time up “The Hill” — the higher-security Maine State Prison down the road in Warren.

“It’s important to keep funding going,” he said, taking a break from working on the cabin at Blueberry Cove. “I made some bad choices. Now, I’m working my way back through.”

McNeil said that he appreciates the extra freedom and support available to him at Bolduc, where he has been for 18 months, and that he’s thinking about doing some carpentry once he gets out.

“You can get up every day and do something useful, instead of just hanging around,” he said of his work with the community. “At MSP I spent more time sitting in the cell. I was working in the kitchen. It was a job, but it didn’t make you feel that great. It was just something to pass the time.”

Leslie Hyde, who helps manage the Blueberry Cove 4-H camp through the University of Maine and describes it as “an affordable camp for Maine kids,” also is paying close attention to Bolduc’s funding status.

“We rely on Bolduc to provide labor,” he said. All told, the inmates’ labor has saved the camp $40,000 to $50,000 this spring, Hyde said.

“They’ve been tremendous. I can’t imagine us even being able to hold summer camp this years, without the Bolduc facility,” he said.

Another inmate paying attention to Bolduc’s funding status was Scott Poirier, who was busy bulldozing a spruce thicket that will become a camp parking lot. He looked comfortable at the controls, with good reason. Before being sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter, Poirier worked at his family’s landscaping busi-ness.

“Bolduc’s a great facility,” Poirier said. “You feel like you’re paying back some debt to society, especially because it’s for a good cause.”

Less expense

Felt and other employees at Bolduc say prison funding is generally “at the bottom of the barrel” in the state of Maine.

“These are people that people want to forget about,” said Mae Worcester, the community programmer at the facility.

But the kinds of prisons where you lock inmates up and throw away the keys are the most expensive, said Steven Barkan, a University of Maine sociology professor and expert on criminology.

The national average cost of a year of incarceration is $29,000, he said. In Maine, Bolduc and the Charleston Correctional Facility are community-based programs designed to help inmates have success when they’re released from jail. They’re a little bit less expensive than the higher-security facilities — and some national re-search shows that they reduce the repeat offender rate.

Maine already has the lowest incarceration rate in the country, said Mark Rubin, a research associate at the Muskie School. But 58.1 percent of incarcerated Mainers released in 2004 were sent back to prison over three years.

“It’s something that’s worth noting and thinking about,” Rubin said.

More than 2,200 people are imprisoned in Maine, which does not now have enough beds for all of them, Rubin said.

“It’s a low rate, but it’s still too high for us,” he said.

With a national rate of one out of every 31 people imprisoned, corrections costs put severe strains on the budgets of many states, Barkan said. “What’s great about community corrections is that they save a lot of money and they’re at least as effective as traditional corrections. It’s really a win-win situation.”

Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said Maine needs to examine its prison costs carefully.

The department’s overall budget for this fiscal year is nearly $155 million. Of that, adult correctional services, including the state prison system, parole and probation, costs $100 million.

“We need to be looking at helping with transition back to the community,” she said.

That’s the specialty of the Bolduc facility, say employees.

“We don’t want them to come back,” Felt said of the Bolduc inmates.

Worcester said she enjoys her work.

“I have great satisfaction seeing the progress they make,” she said, “how much they’ve grown and what they learn for skills. All of us believe in what we do.”

Felt agreed.

“It’s an honorable profession,” he said.