Maine corrections officials tout wholistic approach to addiction treatment after prison renovation

Six out of ten Maine prison inmates have substance abuse disorder.
Six out of ten Maine prison inmates have substance abuse disorder.(WMTW)
Published: Sep. 21, 2022 at 7:23 AM EDT
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PORTLAND, Maine (WMTW) - At the Maine Correctional Center, a century-old, medium-security prison in Windham, old buildings are still being demolished.

“The majority of the buildings were built in 1919 and tremendously old, really unfit,” said Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty on-site on Tuesday. The department invited press to tour the Windham facility, whose renovation has become an unheralded issue in this year’s governor’s race between incumbent Democrat Janet Mills and her Republican challenger – and predecessor in office – Paul LePage, who has questioned what happened to his six-year-old plan to expand the facility for addiction treatment.

The prison is now testing Liberty’s philosophy for reducing recidivism. Liberty was appointed by Mills in 2019 following a career in law enforcement, corrections, and the military.

Liberty said, “We know that the residents that arrive in our care have issues with substance abuse disorder, mental health issues, trauma, poverty, neglect, all of those things. The question is how can the Maine Department of Corrections make our community safer? And we can do that through programming and treatment.”

Treatment focuses on the 61% of Maine prison inmates who suffer from substance abuse disorder, 45% from opioid addiction. ”It’s really an environment that’s been designed modernly to provide comprehensive services,” said Ryan Thornell, MDOC Deputy Commissioner. “They’re prescribed medication, they’re enrolled in treatment counseling services, have access to peer support.”

The renovated Windham prison has a new medical wing with full-time doctors and nurses and a room for dental appointments.

There’s a new visitation room with a play area for children.

In new classrooms, inmates can work toward high school diplomas and college degrees with federally funded Second Chance Pell Grants. ”Ninety-eight percent of every resident that we have in our custody are going to release someday, and our goal in education, is to say, ‘Hey, if the house opens up beside me, I want to be okay with him being my neighbor,’” said Peter Servido, who oversees the education program. “So, our goal is to get them here, educate them, open doors, and have them release and become productive members of society again.”

Most of the 350 men currently incarcerated in Windham will live in new 80-person pods, with modest cells with bunk beds, separate showers, game tables in the common area, and telephones for outgoing calls.

The prison has a capacity for 613 inmates but currently houses 463 men and women, most serving sentences of less than five years.

The renovation budget was $150 million, though $8 million went to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, said MDOC Director of Operations Gary Laplante.

In 2016, then-Gov. Paul LePage signed the law funding the prison renovation.

The project began in 2018 and went over budget.

“In 2019, when the new administration took over, the plan for this project was about $75 million over budget, and so, in order to be fiscally responsible, we had to redesign and reset,” Liberty said.

So, LePage’s plan to create 200 new beds chiefly for addiction treatment was scaled back.

Two months ago, at the July 25 news conference in Augusta where he was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police LePage complained Governor Mills had torpedoed his plan.

“We were going to build a facility to detox drug addicts in Windham,” LePage said. “This governor just scrapped the project.”

But in reality, a new philosophy had taken hold.

“Really the gold standard isn’t about beds, it’s about normalization,” Liberty said.

Due to a lower incarceration rate, the state’s eight prisons – seven for adults and one for juveniles – currently have approximately 800 empty beds, Liberty said.

“If we’re to just segregate them into one housing area and provide treatment to a very small population, we would be overlooking the needs of the broader population,” Thornell said of inmates with addiction issues. “They’re coming in with a myriad of factors, and so when you to go treat one factor in a segregated fashion, only putting people through a detox program, or only putting people through one treatment program, you ignore the variety of other factors at play that also need attention and need support.”

In the past three years, 1,000 Maine prison inmates who have been treated for substance abuse disorder have been released, and Thornell said two-thirds of them stuck with their rehabilitation plan.

“We try to replicate service delivery to what is happening out in the community, to what’s proven to work in the community,” Thornell said.

Liberty said 30% of Maine inmates return to custody after their release, twice as good as the national recidivism rate of 65%.

The Windham construction project is on track to be completed next year.