LePage interested in corporate prisons

The $25,000 contribution question
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 26, 2011

In the 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 the governor-elect. 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 denies a link with the contribution, LePage has already met in Augusta with CCA representatives — weeks before becoming 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, says CCA officials have talked about a prison housing 2000 to 2400 inmates 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. (CCA didn't respond by deadline to the Phoenix's inquiries.)

LePage also is looking into boarding Maine inmates 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 the current 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, the governor-elect's spokesman, says 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 says that at the meeting with LePage CCA officials promoted both the Milo prison and sending Maine prisoners to the company's prisons outside Maine. It was "a good meeting," he says, but talks are preliminary.

Baldacci failed to convince previous Democratic legislatures to allow the Department of Corrections to send inmates to a CCA prison in Oklahoma. The company also had contributed to Baldacci's 2006 reelection campaign. Its Maine lobbyist, Jim Mitchell, is Baldacci's cousin and was a campaign fundraiser. (See "Prisoners as Commodities," by Lance Tapley, April 27, 2007.)

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 inmates to a private prison. Both groups are also opposed to having a private prison built in Maine.

Alysia Melnick, an MCLU attorney, says 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 adds: "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 inmate at an Idaho CCA-run prison while guards did nothing to stop it. The Associated Press obtained a prison video showing that abuse (http://tinyurl.com/PrisonAbuse). The FBI is investigating the staff of that prison.

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