Private prison bill heads to dead files
AUGUSTA — A bill to allow a privately run prison in Maine, carried over from last year’s session in hopes of addressing the needs of aging inmates with more medical concerns, was killed Monday after lawmakers were told no one is interested in running such a facility.
The bill appeared last year amid a flurry of interest in bolstering the anemic economy of the Milo area. The bill won support from some lawmakers in the rural northern Maine area, but lacked enough support to pass and was on the verge of being voted dead by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
But Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat who has a longstanding interest in corrections issues, persuaded lawmakers to keep the measure alive until this year’s session in hopes of addressing what has become a pattern in Maine and the rest of the country: aging inmates.
“We know we have people that are aging in our facilities,” said Gerzofsky, noting that Maine has been without parole for decades. That keeps older offenders behind bars longer than they might have been with a possibility of early release. With aging comes increased medical and other special-care needs, which the prisons weren’t designed to provide, he said.
Gerzofsky said that the state has authorized the Corrections Department to put prisoners in nursing homes, but none of those facilities showed interest in providing that service.
“So we’re just looking for another avenue to address the issue,” said Gerzofsky.
State officials reaching out to companies that run prisons under state contracts also found no interest in building and running a facility for older Maine inmates. Acknowledging that, Gerzofsky asked the Criminal Justice panel to kill the bill and with little discussion, it complied.
Maine, which the U.S. Census says has the nation’s oldest population in general, also has an aging prison population, following a national trend.
U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that between 1999 and 2007, the number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons grew 76.9 percent, while the number of those ages 45 to 54 grew 67.5 percent.
The aging of the prison population brings added expenses, says Vera, an independent nonprofit center that studies reform initiatives. Older inmates have higher rates of health problems, including mental illness, increased risk of major disease and a greater need for assistance with daily living, says Vera. Hearing loss, vision problems, arthritis, hypertension and dementia are all more common among older inmates, the group says.
Gerzofsky said lawmakers are now left without a plan to address the rising number of older inmates, but he says eventually the state will have to face it.
“Government works best with a crisis and when we have a crisis, and then we will deal with it,” he said.