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Maine Governor Rakes in Private Prison Money, Shows Appreciation

In Maine’s last gubernatorial campaign, the controversial Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator, spent $25,000 on behalf of Republican candidate Paul LePage, now Maine’s newly-elected governor. The money was given to the Republican Governors Association’s Maine political action committee, which spent heavily on LePage. No other Maine gubernatorial candidate benefited from CCA money, campaign-finance reports reveal.

Although his transition office denied a link with the contribution, LePage met in Augusta with CCA representatives weeks before he became governor. The meeting breathed new life into the town of Milo’s effort to lure CCA into building a giant prison in that remote, impoverished Piscataquis County community.

Milo officials also met with LePage. The town manager, Jeff Gahagan, said CCA officials have talked about a prison housing 2,000 to 2,400 prisoners with 200 to 300 employees. If true, that would be an extraordinarily small number of staff for such a large number of prisoners. The Maine State Prison has just over 400 workers – most of them guards – to deal with just over 900 prisoners. LePage also is looking into boarding Maine prisoners in CCA prisons out of state.

That possibility and the Milo prison possibility are connected. State law forbids putting Maine prisoners in a for-profit prison, and David Farmer, a top aide to Maine’s previous governor, John Baldacci, a Democrat, told the Bangor Daily News that CCA had informed Baldacci “straight out that unless we were willing, as a state, to send prisoners to their institutions or at least let them compete, they would not build in Maine.”

Dan Demeritt, Governor LePage’s spokesman, said LePage will try to get the law changed in the new Republican-dominated legislature “if it makes sense, if it’s a good deal for the taxpayer.” He said that at the meeting with LePage CCA officials promoted both the Milo prison and sending Maine prisoners to the company’s prisons outside of Maine. It was “a good meeting,” he said, but talks are preliminary.

Former Governor Baldacci failed to convince previous Democratic legislatures to allow the Department of Corrections to send prisoners to a CCA prison in Oklahoma. The company also had contributed to Baldacci’s 2006 reelection campaign. CCA’s Maine lobbyist, Jim Mitchell, is Baldacci’s cousin and was a campaign fundraiser. [Ed. Note: Another CCA lobbyist in Maine, Josh Tardy, is a former House Minority Leader].

The Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition are already gearing up to oppose any attempt in the current legislature to remove the ban on sending prisoners to a private prison. Both groups are also opposed to having a private prison built in Maine.

Alysia Melnick, an MCLU attorney, said in an e-mail, “Prisoner advocates and corrections officials agree that the best way to prevent re-offense is through strengthened ties to the community. That process of community reintegration cannot happen if an inmate is thousands of miles from his community.”

She added, “Private prisons lack transparency and accountability and this has led, across the country, to serious human rights abuses.” The MCLU’s parent, the American Civil Liberties Union, recently drew attention to the severe beating of a prisoner by a fellow prisoner at an Idaho CCA-run prison while guards did nothing to stop the attack. The Associated Press obtained a prison video showing that incident. The FBI is investigating staff at the CCA prison, which also faces a class-action ACLU lawsuit.

The Baldacci administration argued that sending prisoners to CCA’s Oklahoma prison would relieve dangerous prison overcrowding and be cheaper than, for example, boarding prisoners in county jails. But a legislative committee disagreed, saying it would be cheaper to board prisoners in jails, and in 2008 the legislature created the Board of Corrections, whose integration of the prison and jail systems have greatly relieved prison overcrowding. The Maine State Prison in Warren now has 61 unoccupied beds, according to the Corrections Department.

Demeritt said the LePage campaign by law was not allowed to discuss fundraising with the Republican Governors Association. And a Republican Governors Association spokesperson told the Maine Today newspapers that donors to his group like CCA had “no say in how or where their money is spent.”

This article originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix on December 15, 2010, and is reprinted with permission; at the time of publication CCA had not responded to inquiries by the Phoenix

Update: On February 15, 2011, the Maine Senate voted to confirm Governor LePage’s pick to head the Maine Department of Corrections – Joseph Ponte, 64. Prior to being nominated by LePage, Ponte was employed as warden of CCA’s Nevada Southern Detention Center; he also previously worked for private prison firm Cornell Corrections as well as in state prison systems. Ponte said he would sell his shares of CCA stock after being appointed Commissioner of the Maine DOC.

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