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Prison that inspired Stephen King closes

THOMASTON, Maine, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- The dark and gloomy Maine State Prison, which inspired horror writer Stephen King to use as the setting for his novella "The Shawshank Redemption," officially closed early Wednesday with the transfer of the last inmate to a new $76 million facility.

"We started to move the inmates on Sunday, and since then we have moved 561 prisoners" to the new state prison 5 miles away in Warren, Warden Jeff Merrill told United Press International.

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Merrill said the last inmate at the third oldest maximum-security facility in the nation -- constructed in 1824 -- was moved out at 3:10 a.m.

"Everything went very well," Merrill said. "As of 5:20 this morning, after a final sweep of the cells and corridors, the Maine State Prison in Thomaston is closed."

The warden said although there has been talk of turning the prison into a tourist attraction, as have some 30 others around the country including Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, plans as of now are "moving forward" to have the granite and brick building demolished and replaced by a town park.

State Rep. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, is spearheading a drive to convert the old prison to other uses, but so far has been unsuccessful. He wants the state to delay demolition for at least a year to explore alternatives.

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Merrill said there is a fascination about the history surrounding the antiquated facility, and many people have called to indicate they want to see it before it's torn down.

He said he's often asked by other corrections officials around the country how he likes being the warden for "The Shawshank Redemption" prison. While King set his story in the Maine prison, Merrill points out the 1994 movie starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman actually was filmed in the old Ohio State Reformatory.

Merrill also is excited about moving into the new state-of-the-art facility, which is designed to house more than 900 male inmates, more than twice the population at Thomaston.

The new facility consists of seven buildings and almost 500,000 square feet of space. Unlike the pitch-black gloom of the old prison, the new compound features a narrow glass window in each cell providing inmates with natural light and views of the outside.

Guards will be able to monitor inmate activities with video surveillance cameras, and three fences surrounding the compound provide security against escape. The second fence is pressure-sensitive wire that gives off an electronic signal if touched.

As did prisoners at the old facility, inmates at the new prison have a chance to work in a factory-like area where they are able to manufacture furniture and other wood products for sale to the public.

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A skilled woodworker can make as much as $6,000 a year, Merrill said, a privilege that helps reduce the potential for problems.

(Reported by David Haskell in Boston)

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