State of Maine: Paying Lip Service to Prison Reform

Posted on February 1, 2011

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Author, Stan Moody:

It has been 19 months since I received a call from the Senate Chair of the Maine Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety – one day after I submitted my resignation as a chaplain at Maine State Prison. “I’d like to meet with you and Department of Corrections Commissioner Magnusson at 2:00 pm in my office,” he said.

I cooled my heels in the lobby while the two discussed their political strategy, after which I was invited into the office. “I should like to extend to you the opportunity to rescind your resignation,” Commissioner Magnusson offered. My response, “Under one condition only, and that is that I work with your office on re-entry.” Agreed!

Six months later, after a number of exchanges with the Commissioner, I decided that there was no interest in re-entry or prison reform and began a singular crusade to tear the shroud of secrecy off the Old Boy Network that presides over the corrections system in Maine. Meanwhile, I have written over 90 articles on prison reform, some of which have been published nationally.

The effort, thus far, has been only incrementally successful. The arcane police culture of viewing the general public as the enemy is so entrenched in our prison system that our sons and daughters are rendered subhuman and subjected to arbitrary and inconsistent abuse. It is nearly impossible to find a staff member within the system who views the taxpayer as employer; instead, the prevailing sentiment is that the public owes the staff its undying gratitude for keeping it safe.

There are prisoners under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections who are dying under suspicious circumstances, and nobody seems to give a care. The Attorney General’s Office has been dragging its political feet on an indictment in the Sheldon Weinstein homicide of April 24, 2009.

I have come to the conclusion that, barring a “born again” experience on the part of incoming Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, the system will tweak its way along, keeping the news out and the leaks plugged. Here are a few observations I have gathered over the years:

• The currency of choice within the prison system is sex and drugs, in which both prisoners and some corrections officers participate…
• Corrections officers hate sex offenders and mark them for abuse…Prisoners are enlisted by officers, sometimes under duress, to shake sex offenders down ostensibly for rent…
• If you are a single female corrections officer, it is almost a rite of passage that you either be having sex with a prisoner or with a corrections officer…Every new female officer who completes her training is “fresh meat” and expected to comply…
• The “kid system” protects corrections officers from allegations of abuse…One officer with a number of uninvestigated sexual harassment complaints filed against him is protected because he is a close family member of a retired administrator…
• Even the most circumspect of prison administrators remain close-mouthed over human rights violations out of fear of being targeted with personnel charges…

How do we make a dent in this archaic system? We do it from the outside. Hope resides within the county correctional systems that have, through legislation, been largely co-opted by the Department to the anger and frustration of elected county officials. Every re-entry program of any merit has emerged at the county level, with Kennebec, Waldo and Piscataquis Counties of particular note.

Community leaders are beginning to understand that corrections is not only a local problem but a local responsibility. In the past 25 years, the crime rate in Maine has dropped 40%, while the incarceration rate has tripled. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand where this is headed. If you were to see the mattresses thrown on the floor of a county correctional center, you would know that we are already there.

Re-entry at the local level is the only antidote to this cash-consuming growth industry we call corrections. While enormous energies are being expended at the State level to keep the lid on violations of human rights, studies show that you can cut the recidivism rate by up to 75% with housing, job training, substance abuse counseling and mentoring at a fraction of the $50,000 a year cost of warehousing our disposable citizens.

Human nature recoils, however, at the prospect of presiding over a declining industry, unless it is the Department of Education or Human Services.

And so I ask, “Where are the prison employees with personal integrity? Where are the State Legislators with courage? Where are the journalists who can see through the sound bites and the BS?”

The silence is deafening!

Author Stan Moody has served in the Maine Legislature, was a prison chaplain and has written scores of articles on prison reform. He is a board member of Solitary Watch and has received the ACLU-ME Civil Liberties Baldwin Award. Stan’s articles can be read at http://www.scribd.com/stanmoody and https://moodyreport.wordpress.com/.

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