A national consultant for the Maine Department of Corrections said the state must improve its prison facilities for a growing number of female inmates or face possible legal challenges down the road.

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is making a pitch to lawmakers for a scaled-down plan to replace the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Earlier this month, the corrections department outlined a plan to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to replace the outdated facility in Windham at a cost of up to $180 million. Consultants working with the department have now reduced the price tag to just under $150 million.

“We’re pulling together some different aspects,” said corrections Commissioner Joe Fitzpatrick. “We have changed the physical design and shrunk the footprint to lower the physical costs of the MCC campus.”

Fitzpatrick said the new facility, which would cost less to build and operate than the original plan, would increase the capacity at Windham to 979 inmates of both sexes. It would be made up of a three-story unit, which would include a geriatric unit.

Longtime committee member Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, questioned chief architect Arthur Thompson about the design.

“Three stories,” Gerzofsky said, “and what I am looking at, the geriatrics are on the third floor. Were you planning on elevators?”

“Yes,” Thompson said. “For that population.”

The new facility also would have medical and mental health treatment units for women. Curtiss Pulitzer, a national consultant retained by the department, said Maine can avoid problems experienced in other states that failed to provide appropriate facilities for women.

“Numbers of women in your system are growing much faster than your male population,” he said. “We cannot have deliberate indifference. We have to treat our women with equal respect and equal access to treatment programs, and not just day-to-day programs but medical and mental health services, and that is not happening right now.”

And Fitzpatrick said that unless it addresses these issues, the state could be put under a court-ordered consent decree similar to the one that has governed the mental health system in Maine for decades.

“Sooner or later we’re going to find ourselves in a lawsuit situation, a consent decree situation where the choice gets taken away from us as a state,” he said. “The feds just did it to New York, they did it to California, they’re looking at Florida.”

Fitzpatrick said a major goal of the plan is to address substance abuse issues in the prisons. He said there are only 77 substance-abuse beds in the system, and that number would more than triple under the plan to 240 beds.

The department is proposing the project be paid for by the Government Facilities Authority, which can sell bonds that the department will pay off over several years from the savings it would achieve from lower operational costs, projected at over $10 million per year. But that funding source still concerns several on the committee who believe the voters should approve the borrowing at referendum.

Fitzpatrick, however, worries that voters would not approve the investment.

“I don’t think there is any way to educate the general populace, the voters in a way to let them realize, ‘Wow, we should really do this because it is coming at us like a train and we are not going to afford it and it is going to cost us more later,’” he said.

The committee has yet to vote on the proposal, which is likely to generate considerable debate in the full Legislature.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.