Prison Reform: Is “Joe the Boss” Ready for Prime Time?

Posted on March 14, 2011

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Author: Stan Moody

As the first to jump on board in support of the nomination of Joseph Ponte as Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, I am getting the uneasy feeling that he may be inching toward the end of an illustrious career that attracted him to me in the first place.

In an article published in the Kennebec Journal on March 13, 2011, two conflicting characteristics emerge. One is that of a shy, soft-spoken prison turn-around specialist; the other is that of a 64-year old veteran coasting out in a place of refuge – Maine.

It is easy to be critical, I will readily admit. In order to encourage the man who gained a reputation as “Joe the Boss,” however, this is no time in Maine corrections history for a guy looking for the down ramp.

Here are the downsides to the article:

1. Ponte “…was not given the Maine job because of any particular problem.” Perhaps he has not had time to read the articles written about prisoner abuse within the system and the spate of suspicious deaths within the past couple of years.
2. “…family reasons brought him to Maine.” Family reasons account for much in this world in which we survive, not the least of which are those families that have found themselves to be victims of crime and of an overwhelmed Maine criminal justice system.
3. “We spent a lot of time over the last 10 years living in other states and other parts of country. It wasn’t home, and I just wanted to get back here.” Well; for whatever reason you are back here, Mr. Ponte, you have assumed a job that transcends geography and retirement mode. It may look like a caretaker responsibility on the outside, but what is beneath the surface is badly in need of correction.

The Commissioner Maine needs is the “Joe the Boss” who walked into Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts in 1980 and turned it around from a murder a month to “…a quite well-run maximum security prison.”

The Commissioner Maine needs is the “Joe the Boss” who “…understands human behavior, whether they’re locked up or free.”

The Commissioner Maine needs is the “Joe the Boss” who “…would absolutely write up his mother if she did something wrong.”

The Commissioner Maine needs is the “Joe the Boss” who understands that the “double dippers” within this antiquated and fear-bound 19th Century system need to be put out to the very pasture to which he is portrayed in the press as being headed.

Joe, we who have pushed ourselves beyond retirement age understand the desire to wind down. We are asking for one more second wind. You have too great a resume and personal credentials to be blindsided by the disarming smiles of bureaucratic lethargy.

Compared with the riot-torn prisons you have turned around in the past, Maine’s may look benign on the surface, but you are desperately needed to dig beneath the orderly march from one activity to another. Often the seeds of inhumanity sprout their deepest roots in quiet soil.

We wish you well, Commissioner Joe. Never consider for one moment, however, that yours will be a free ride into the golden years. You may not have accepted this job for any reason other than wanting to get back home, but you are now up to bat.

We are home; this has been our home – some of us for centuries. The standards to which we must hold you accountable are not too difficult to attain. They are simply that the least among us who so desire will be given a chance and that those in the corrections system who have long since become numbed by routine will be shuttled aside, no matter how user friendly they may seem at first blush.

It is a noble goal but an attainable one that can only be measured in reduced recidivism and community involvement – goals for which there will be little applause.

We think you are up to the job. Are you ready to face the challenge?

You have come to rest among the disingenuous but the politically astute. We’ve got your back!

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