Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said March 20 there is no financial savings to incarcerating people, but he sees opportunities for most prisoners to become good employees in the community.

"I believe in redemption," he told community leaders gathered at the University of Maine Augusta Rockland Center. "I believe we all have fallen short."

The commissioner said many of those who spend on average 18 months in prison can be rehabilitated and trained to be good employees, good parents and good citizens.

Liberty spoke during a panel discussion as part of a half-day session that brought together prison officials and business and community leaders from around the state in a forum titled "Hiring Workers from the Justice System."

The Maine Department of Corrections, Rockland Main Street Inc., the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, Maine Downtown Center and the Rockland Career Center all participated in the event.

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Dr. Ryan Thornell provided some of statistics on Maine's prison programs. About 1,200 to 1,300 individuals enter our prison system every year, and there are a total of 2,400 people incarcerated currently. Of that, the vast majority are men, with only 250 women in Maine prisons.

There are five prisons in the state, including The Maine State Prison and Bolduc in Warren and facilities in Windham and Charleston.

The highest security risk prisoners are ranked as "close custody," and housed at the state prison in Warren. About 35 percent or more fall into the "medium custody" group and the others are minimum security or community custody. Those ranked as community custody are eligible for work-release programs to attend education classes and serve as employees.

Prisoners are given the opportunity to participate in programs for substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual offender treatment, and many prisoners take part in education and vocational training programs.

Thornell said prisoners range from those working on their GEDs to one student in a master's degree program.

About 1,200 prisoners are released every year.

Liberty praised the work of UMA Rockland Center Director Deborah Meehan, noting that the Rockland campus has helped 100 prisoners earn degrees.

During panel discussions, two female prisoners talked about their experiences and the help they received from prison staff in recognizing their skills, building their confidence and helping them set up interviews for jobs. Both are currently employed.

David Grima of the Department of Labor's Career Center in Rockland said local employers are desperate for workers to the point that local construction firms have had to turn down projects and restaurants have had trouble opening for the season for lack of employees. He helped set up one construction firm with workers from the justice system. He pointed to the value of local programs like his in connecting employers with the employees they need.

The event included three panel discussions. Knox County Sheriff Tim Carroll provided an overview at the beginning of the event. Several corrections officials participated.