The number of women incarcerated in Maine is rising fast. In the past six years the number of female inmates at the Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham has grown from about 150 to more than 220, as of April. And the state Department of Corrections has a problem: the overcrowded women's facility is housed in a men's prison.
This week administrators will lay out their plan to address it, but not everyone is on board.
The overcrowding problem, says Warden Scott Landry, is directly linked to Maine's opioid crisis. More than 50 percent of the women who wind up at the Maine Correctional Center have been convicted of drug crimes. That is true for only about 30 percent of the men.
In the B-pod, Landry says the overcrowding problem for women is made more difficult by the fact that some of them are now living in a building made for temporary housing that also houses men. Both are required be kept apart by sight and sound.
"It's pretty tight quarters,” says Landry. “Twenty-four beds in here, and it's really intended for higher security, not for long-term housing. You can see that daylight is more limited."
There is not enough room to do programming in the unit, and he says there were times last year when women had to be placed in cots on the floor.
Some cells continue to hold more women than they are designed for.
"This is my second shot at the women's center. We have rooms that are two-people rooms and four-people rooms," says Heather Wilkinson of Augusta. She is serving a three-year-sentence for drug trafficking.
"Now we're crowded enough that there's six people that were designed to four,” she says. “There's always too many people and not enough beds."
The problem is not unique to Maine. The rate of incarceration for women is increasing across the country. The challenge for Maine prison administrators is how to deal with it. With a population of about 550 male prisoners, the Maine Correctional Center's facilities, policies and even its staff are primarily focused on men.
But Warden Scott Landry says corrections officials think they have a cost-effective solution.
“There is an option on the table to use some existing capacity at the Long Creek juvenile facility to house the female population,” says Landry.
At one time, Long Creek in South Portland housed about 200 kids. Over the past decade the number has been reduced to about 50. Landry says that under the proposed plan, about 100 women in the re-entry center at Windham would remain where they are and continue working and volunteering in the community. Those in the more secure facility, about 120 women, would be transferred to Long Creek.
"That would allow the female population to really have an adequate number of beds and space to provide for their programming need as well," says Landry.
Landry says it would also mean having dedicated staff at a women's facility who is trained to respond to the specific needs of women prisoners.
Inmate Heather Wilkinson says women prisoners have mixed views about moving to Long Creek. She thinks it is a step in the right direction, but she says many of the MCC "long-timers" are opposed.
So is Charlotte Warren, Democratic co-Chair of the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee.
"We are in the middle of a Substance Use Disorder epidemic in this state,” Warren says. “You know, most people have figured out the way to deal with it is not to incarcerate folks. We're still struggling to figure that out in Maine."
Warren says about half the women in prison are there for simple possession charges and many are mothers. She thinks Maine's drug sentencing laws should be reformed and that more alternatives to prison - like drug treatment and other programs – should be offered.
"As far as Long Creek, we need to see a plan,” she says. “We need to see numbers. We need to see why."
Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty says educational programming is important to help women prisoners become better parents once they are released.
"Now they only have one classroom for 125 women,” says Liberty. “If we move 'em to Long Creek, we'll have seven classrooms."
He says costs to retrofit the youth center are still being calculated, but he says he is confident he can pay for it with existing funds.
"If we were able to use the existing beds at Long Creek, we can avoid about a $19-million construction cost to construct a new housing unit for the adult females at MCC,” he says. “So it makes fiscal sense for the taxpayer to avoid that $19-millon cost."
Corrections officials are expected to make their case for the women's transfer at a public hearing on Wednesday. The plan will require legislative approval.
Originally published May 28, 2019 at 5:44 p.m. ET.