July 25, 2021

Throwing away the key > Impending closure of Maine State Prison prompting Thomaston to forge a new identity

The clock is ticking toward the closure of Maine State Prison, but the fate of the old facility hangs in limbo.

The Maine State Prison has overshadowed Thomaston’s quaint village for some 176 years, and has been a Route 1 attraction to hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to its prison showroom, which features prisoner-made crafts and furniture.

Whether the bricks and bars are knocked down or not, the loss of the state-funded operation and jobs when inmates are moved to a new prison in Warren late next year, will leave a huge hole – not only in the landscape, but in the identity of this small town.

“The biggest impact is what occurs at that site,” Town Manager Valmore Blastow Jr. said, noting how long the prison has been in town.

Perhaps the prison will be replaced with something that creates a new identity for Thomaston, Blastow said, adding, “it could be a plus.”

Several options studied by consultants included turning the old prison into a municipal building, museum and cultural center or commercial office space. However, all plans would have been substantially more expensive than building new. Consultants had also noted that there are few private businesses that could utilize the 270,000 square feet of building space within the security walls of the prison cmmunity.

Blastow said locals were also concerned that the state might just leave the facilities vacant and deteriorating.

So the town has asked that the prison be completely demolished – with the exception of historic artifacts – and that the land be turned into green space and given to the town.

According to Warden Jeffrey Merrill, the state is submitting Thomaston’s request to the Legislature. The price tag to level the buildings, fill the massive quarry and turn the 11 developable acres into green space is estimated at more than $2 million, he said. The space could then become a park or be developed as the town sees fit.

While that plan is probably the least expensive alternative, Merrill said it still would cost a great deal of money.

“We’re trying to be as proactive as we can be,” he said.

The Legislature will not consider the proposition and funding request until January, Merrill said. In its proposal, the town has also required that any environmental issues be resolved before it would accept ownership.

The fact that the state has had tax-free use of the land for 176 years should play a role in the Legislature’s decision, according to Lee-Ann Upham, chairwoman of selectmen.

Preserving parts of the prison also is something under consideration by the state and town.

Several of the town’s comprehensive plan committee members indicated a willingness to somehow help maintain historic artifacts once the state gives the go-ahead.

Four areas of the prison were evaluated during a June tour of the facility by representatives of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the state Bureau of General Services, the town of Thomaston and state Rep. James Skoglund, D-St. George.

Some of the items earmarked for preservation included three granite date stones, numerous granite lintels, several plaques and an “L-shaped” granite wall. It was also suggested that the facility be thoroughly photographed and that an oral history be created from interviews with guards, past and present prison officials, and prisoners.

Another idea put forth involved having the town lease or acquire one of the state buildings on the other side of Route 1 from the prison to assemble a museum.

The museum would feature artifacts fro the prison’s existing museum that would either be placed on permanent loan with the town or have ownership transferred to the town. There has also been talk about salvaging a prison cell and a stainless steel cafeteria table to put on display.

Merrill said that the department would likely keep some of the prison curios for the new prison because they are used for educational purposes and for showing visitors.

One certainty is that the prison showroom, which is a separate building located on Route 1 near the prison, will remain on site, Merrill said. Crafts and furniture made by inmates at the new prison will still be sold at the showroom. “The showroom is a big, important part of our program for our prisoners,” he said. “We also recognize what that showroom does for this community. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Upham agreed, saying that the showroom is “an industry in and of itself” that would continue to thrive with or without the prison there.

Since it was built, the Thomaston prison has housed some of the state’s most dangerous criminals. That reality may have been a detriment to development and growth in the town, said Blastow.

Rather than buying a house or opening a business in Thomaston, people may have chosen to move to a surrounding town because of the presence of the prison, he said.

“We could have a boost without the prison,” Blastow said.

Whether the Maine State Prison has been a help or hindrance, it is to become vacant in 11 short months.

The 400-plus inmates will be moved, lock, stock and barrel, to a new facility in Warren. Shifting the prisoners, their bedding and belongings seems like a logistical nightmare, Merrill said, but officials are working out those details in the relocation plan. They are also still trying to determine whether to move the people or the furniture first.

“Moving 440 prisoners is one thing,” Merrill said, but listing all the inventory is another matter. Not only do guards have to place the inmates in the proper cells at the new $76 million penal institution, the prisoners’ belongings have to end up in the right spot, too.

By Nov. 1, 2001, every single piece of reusable equipment within facility in Thomaston is to be inventoried, packed and shipped to the Warren prison.

“Everyon is working desperately to meet the deadline,” Merrill said.

According to Merrill, the prison personnel have gone through the entire facility twice identifying what can be used at the new prison; what cannot be used but can be transferred to state surplus; and what items should be discarded.

The bleachers from the old gymnasium, for instance, will be reused in the new one, he noted. But the state Department of Corrections has a $1 million budget for purchasing new equipment for the Warren prison, such as medical and laundry equipment, new desks, shop tools, and the telephone system.

A maintenance garage on the same side of Route 1 as the prison and the showroom may remain. That decision is still up in the air, though the town would like to see the garage torn down and the land under it also donated to the community.

Four wooden buildings located across Route 1 from the Thomaston prison will be kept by the state for use by the probation and parole department, for warehouse space for the showroom and for housing prison guard recruits during the initial training period.

The prison fire trucks and equipment will have to be moved closer to the new prison, but the warden said he wasn’t sure where they will be housed yet. One option being considered is building a new garage at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, which is located on Route 97 near the new Warren prison.

As for work at the new prison, the foundations have been poured at the site where the new compound is being developed adjacent to the Maine Correctional Institution, also known as the Supermax prison.

Last month, construction crews began lowering 30-ton prefabricated, two-cell units onto the slab foundations. The high-tech electronically monitored fencing was being installed and the perimeter of the property was already landscaped with riprap.

The 395,000 square feet of new building space to be known as Maine State Prison in Warren will be much different from what the Thomaston prison used to be.

In 1824, the prison cells were 9-foot deep holes that had been dug in the ground, Merrill said. The pits, measuring 4.5 feet by 6 feet, had no special provisions for sanitation.

Some critics of the new institution being constructed have complained that it will be too goodfor the inmates, he said.

Merrill counters that the new prison is designed to be more efficient, safer and to provide housing areas for various levels of security that protect the staff as much as the inmates.

“The whole philosophy is getting prisoners out of their cells and getting them involved with other prisoners and staff,” he said, referring to the new pod-like design of the building units.

The facility also will be operated under a different method of “unit management,” for which staff will receive training over the course of the next 11 months. The new management method, too, is designed for better efficiency in handling inmates and their numerous requests.

“I want a plan on who is going to what and when it’s going to happen and the resources needed,” Merrill said, noting that those plans are beginning to fall into place.

When construction is completed, there will be 966 beds – including the existing 100 beds at the Supermax – within the 1,000-acre complex.

The old prison is currently filled to capacity with 440 inmates and can no longer accommodate an ever-increasing number of prisoners statewide.

“It’s new technology,” Merrill said of the Warren prison. “It’s a big chapter in Maine’s correctional history.”

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