WINDHAM, Maine — The Maine Department of Corrections has been working hard to win support for a $173 million bond to back the renovation at Windham Correctional Center.
Meetings with neighbors and community leaders had gone well. Members of the Legislature and the public had toured the facility and a public hearing on it was scheduled for February. Now that plan is in flux. The one thing that remains constant is the condition of the prison.
The list of challenges at the Windham prison is long. For starters, there’s a climate control issue for prisoners and staff.
“You don’t have modern HVAC,” Warden Scott Landry said. “So, in the summer months, sometimes, you have places in the facility that are absolutely sweltering. And then in the winter months we’ve had occasions where you have toilets skimming over with ice.”
Landry said the prison gets so cold in places that blankets are hung over windows to try provide insulation. When that doesn’t work, he said some inmates have been moved out of their cells into the central day area to try to keep them warm.
The prison was originally planned as a men’s reformatory where minimum security inmates worked on a farm that lacked a fence. There is one now, tall with coiled barbed wire. That’s because most of the 600 prisoners who live here are categorized as medium security and can’t leave the premises.
Over the years, several of the buildings constructed in the 1920s have been retrofitted to try to accommodate the changing mission. But they haven’t been completely rebuilt.
The result, Landry said, is a patchwork facility that is inefficient and deteriorating, and in some places, unsafe.
“So, just getting to where we’re going is kind of a challenge from a security point of view,” he said.
On a recent tour of the facility, Landry pointed out how he and his staff try to make do with aging infrastructure that does not conform with modern correctional standards.
“Blind spots, tight corners, lots of stairs — very challenging for inmates who can’t negotiate stairs,” he said. “We have elevators that are pretty old condition that we would rather not use but use sparingly.”
But the condition and layout of the facility poses more than just security concerns. In the chow hall kitchen, a malfunctioning drain means cooks are standing in a pool of water on the floor. Ceilings around the facility constantly leak. Pigeons occasionally break through windows. And in one housing unit there’s just one shower stall with three heads for 40 inmates.
Cells in this unit are tight: a small bunk bed for two prisoners, a couple of lockers and a toilet with almost no room to move. And in another housing unit for behaviorally challenging inmates, it’s dark and loud and, in a word, austere.
“Staff are working in that — 12-hour shifts,” Landry said. “And it kind of amps up behavior. It doesn’t have the calming effect that you would rather have with a population such as this.”
Landry said the Maine Department of Corrections isn’t looking for luxury in its plan to renovate and rebuild the Maine Correctional Center. But what it is looking for is improved function, security and a positive environment for prisoners, who will someday be getting out.
“I think one of the biggest challenges you run into is the space itself being designed a little bit better as far as being able to do more classes in this large of a space,” Scott Donohue, the adult education teacher at the Windham Correctional Center, said. “We’re still using a lot of books. To keep up with technology we need some wiring upgrades. Wiring in here is very outdated.”
Space for programming and training for prisoners and staff is at a premium throughout the prison. Landry said there’s just not enough. And what little there is is too far away from where prisoners are housed.
Under the Department of Corrections’ plan, the new facility would be designed around programming needs. Landry said it would include at least an additional 200 beds for substance abuse treatment and acute mental health needs, and some geriatric and infirmary beds, at a cost of $173 million.
“Correctional housing is incredibly expensive,” Landry said. “It’s got to be robust. It’s got to withstand the population that we’re housing here, so we would like to get this started as soon as possible. The need certainly exists.”
But, he said, it will need to be vetted by the Legislature. And now that the governor is planning to revamp and potentially expand the project, it’s unclear how much the price tag will increase or whether the Department of Corrections will be able to move forward to address conditions as soon as it had hoped.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.