The Shawshank Succession: Maine Built a State-of-the-Art Prison to Replace the One Made Infamous in the Movies. It Filled Up Almost Overnight, but Many Inside Don't Belong There. Now the Question Is What to Do with Them

By Rosenbloom, Joseph | The American Prospect, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Shawshank Succession: Maine Built a State-of-the-Art Prison to Replace the One Made Infamous in the Movies. It Filled Up Almost Overnight, but Many Inside Don't Belong There. Now the Question Is What to Do with Them


Rosenbloom, Joseph, The American Prospect


IN THE MID-1990S, WHEN THEN-GOV. ANGUS KING UNveiled an ambitious prison construction plan, the proposal had nothing to do with any "lock-'em-up" agenda. Maine had one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, a tradition of moderation on law-and-order issues, and no intention of changing either one. The centerpiece of King's plan was a $65 million maximum-security prison, which opened in the town of Warren in February 2002. The new facility was built to replace a 178-year-old, red-brick monolith that, as local lore has it, was a model for the grim prison of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption.

Referring to the old prison, Angus King (who is no relation to the writer) says, "It was almost Dickensian, it was the oldest prison in the country and it was very expensive to run." By building the modern prison, the state expunged a stigma, and Maine officials expected the savings in operating expenses to more than offset the new facility's capital cost.

But a funny thing happened on the way to fiscal prudence: Maine's adult prison population, which had held steady and even dipped for three years in the mid-1990s, shot up. By the summer of 2003, Warren was full. "That was a total shock, because it is practically a state-of-the-art facility that was supposed to be good for 10 years," says Sen. Mary Cathcart, a Democrat who co chairs the Maine legislature's Committee on Appropriations and Financial Affairs. All told, the number of inmates in Maine's prisons surged from an average of 1,667 in 2001 to 1,819 a year later, a 9 percent jump and the largest increase percentage wise among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The trend has continued this year, with the number of inmates in the state's prisons approaching 2,000. And Maine lawmakers had to grit their teeth and increase the Corrections Department's budget 11.8 percent this year over last.

The shock of coping with an unexpectedly voracious prison budget at a time of fiscal austerity--hard times forced the state to virtually freeze its overall budget at $2.5 billion this year--has created an extraordinary sense of urgency among Maine's top elected officials and an unexpected opportunity for reform. The state's political establishment, never before greatly interested in these issues, is suddenly all ears for new ideas related to crime and punishment. "It's like we're in a place where something really creative could happen," says Suzanne Rudalevige, director of the Maine Council of Churches' restorative-justice program.

Foremost among the proposals that are receiving close attention, according to Rudalevige, are various alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. The interest, moreover, is clearly bipartisan. "I wonder if it is good policy to have so many people incarcerated, especially nonviolent prisoners," muses the Republican minority leader of the Maine Senate, Paul Davis, who is a retired state trooper. In September, current Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, named former corrections chief Don Allen, a Republican, to head a blue-ribbon commission to inquire into the causes of the state's prison crisis and recommend remedies--and do it quickly. Baldacci called for a report within three months.

The reasons underlying Maine's prison overcrowding seem to be complex. "When I first went into it, I looked for a silver bullet," says Ethan Strimling, the Democratic chairman of the legislature's Committee on Criminal Justice and a member of the new commission. "But the more I look at it, the more I believe it's a combination of a lot of things."

One leading explanation has its roots far from Maine: President Clinton's tough-on-crime policy. In 1995, to qualify for funds under Clinton's prison construction program, the Maine legislature enacted so-called truth-in-sentencing legislation. The "truth" the federal government demanded was a state law requiring criminal offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence in prison. …

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