by Lance Tapley
Only big prison systems mistreat prisoners, right?
Only prison systems where racism, right-wing tough-on-crime attitudes, or prison-industrial-complex power have full reign, like in California or Texas, are failures, right?
Only prisons where gang-oriented, city-bred prisoners are divided by race are ugly, right?
Only big prison systems arrogantly try to hide what they're doing from the public, right?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Maine is the little (1.3-million people), lily-white (the least diverse state in the nation), liberal (it went overwhelmingly for Kerry in 2004) "Vacationland" squeezed up into Canada at the top of the Northeast. It has one of the lowest crime rates and the rock-bottom-lowest incarceration rate in the country.
But Maine's Department of Corrections has presided over extensive prisoner abuse and neglect that it has worked hard to hide.
I began reporting about Maine's prisons in November 2005, when Torture in Maine's Prison, an exposé of the brutality in the Maine State Prison's Special Management ("Supermax") Unit, appeared in the Portland Phoenix, an alternative newsweekly. In two subsequent articles, I detailed the fallout from the torture article, the state's promises of reform, and the inadequacy of reform efforts. These three stories were reprinted in PLN in June 2006.
Here is an update on Maine's continuing story of prisoner mistreatment, with its parallel story of attempts by state officials to suppress the news of abuse and neglect. This update is in the form of excerpts and condensations--snapshots of the Maine prison landscape--from a sampling of my Phoenix articles:
On June 27, 2006, Joseph Steinberger thought he had won one of the most important trials of his legal career. His client, Michael James, a resident of the Maine State Prison's Supermax maximum-security unit, had been charged with 10 assaults on guards. James is one of the most disturbed of what the Maine prison system admits are hundreds of mentally ill prisoners. After five days of testimony from four psychologists and psychiatrists and the accused himself, a Knox County jury found James "not criminally responsible" by reason of insanity.
As a court-appointed Rockland attorney who represents many mentally ill prisoners, Steinberger felt this verdict might be a landmark because it put in question the state's practice of keeping many such prisoners in Supermax solitary confinement, where advocates for the mentally ill say the prisoners' mental state gets worse and they receive only minimal psychiatric care. Advocates in Maine and nationally say this practice creates a brutal cycle that drives prisoners into suicidal or aggressive behavior -- the latter bringing additional sentences for assault and more Supermax time.
But the Knox County jury broke the cycle -- or so it seemed.
After the verdict, Superior Court justice Donald Marden ordered James into the custody of the commissioner of the state?s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) "to be placed in an appropriate institution for the mentally ill . . . for care and treatment," as the law required. In Maine, that institution is the state's Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which has a 48-bed unit for people charged with, or convicted of, crimes.
The next day, however, the assistant attorneys general representing respectively DHHS and the Department of Corrections wrote the judge that they had advised their departments that James "should remain in prison to serve his current sentence, and then be placed with DHHS." They gave no reason for this decision, citing vaguely "the statutes and available case law." If upheld, this decision meant James would have to spend almost 10 more years in prison before he could get treated at the mental hospital.
James, 23, had been sentenced to 12 years at the age of 18 for snatching a purse, breaking into a parked car, and robbing someone with a gun-shaped cigarette lighter. He had spent most of his childhood in mental institutions. In the Warren prison, he had spent almost all his time in the Supermax, where disobedient and troublesome men are kept along with violent prisoners. Previously, he had had three years added to his time for assaults on guards.
Testimony from all quarters depicts James's condition similarly. To use attorney Steinberger's words in a letter of protest to Democratic governor John Baldacci, "He continually slits open his arms and legs with chips of paint and concrete, smears himself and his cell with feces, strangles himself to unconsciousness with his clothing, and constantly bangs his head against the concrete walls of his cell and cuts it open on the edge of the tray slot in the solid steel cell door. He also bites, hits, kicks, spits at, and throws urine and feces on his guards." The guards often reacted by harshly "extracting" him from his cell--beating a prisoner to the floor is standard practice--and strapping him into a restraint chair.
Steinberger began the process of suing the state on behalf of James. Working now without pay, he enlisted the help of the Disability Rights Center advocacy group in Augusta.
"We're not duty-bound to explain" to the public the reasoning behind the letter to the judge when litigation is in the offing, said attorney general Steven Rowe's public-relations man, Charles Dow. "We're not legal consultants to the Phoenix or anyone else."
Orlando Delogu, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said state officials may be "taking a page out of [President] Bush's book -- we only enforce the law that appeals to us."
Death in the Supermax
A 25-year-old prisoner killed himself in the state prison's Supermax unit on October 5, 2006. But while a Rockland newspaper quoted the prison warden as saying the prisoner was not considered a suicide risk, Ryan Rideout had a long history of mental illness and suicidal behavior.
Three times within three weeks in 2004, he had threatened to jump while walking along the top edge of a four-story building in Bangor. His threats closed off downtown traffic each time, until police talked him away from the edge.
The Department of Corrections has admitted problems in, and repeatedly promised reforms to, the prison's Supermax, which contains many mentally ill prisoners. But the reforms did not come quickly enough to save Rideout's life. He hung himself from a sprinkler head with his bedding.
In 2004, the Bangor Daily News described how, after Rideout's threats to jump from the building, he had been refused admission to Acadia Hospital, a private mental health facility in Bangor, because the hospital said it didn't have the resources to deal with him. From a jail cell, he told a reporter that he had tried to commit suicide at least 13 times since the age of 12, "and his list of mental health diagnoses is nearly as long as the list of medications he has been on and off during his lifetime."
Rideout was in the Supermax because he was verbally abusive to prison staff, the Rockland Courier-Gazette quoted warden Jeffrey Merrill as saying.
Associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord said the state police would conduct "a full review" of Rideout's death. "We're not taking it lightly," she said.
How could a suicide take place in a maximum-security facility? "That's one of the reviews we will be doing," she replied.
According to news reports, there have been three suicides at the prison in the last seven years, including Rideout's, all in the Supermax or its adjacent psychiatric wing.
Rideout was found around 11:30 p.m. during regular half-hour guard rounds, according to the Rockland newspaper, quoting Merrill, who said resuscitation was attempted. Rideout was serving a 17-month term for burglary.
Ray Luc Levasseur, of Brunswick, a political activist who spent years in federal supermaxes after being convicted of bombing corporate offices around the Northeast, said of supermax settings and suicide: "Everything I saw showed that the sensory deprivation and isolation simply intensify any mental health issues [prisoners] have."
Hunger Strike; More Supermax Suicide Attempts
Prisoners at the state prison's Supermax unit began a hunger strike on October 14, 2006. The protest was connected to an October 5 suicide in the unit, said corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson, after reports on the strike began leaking out of the prison.
Magnusson also confirmed that two Supermax prisoners had been taken to the hospital after they had "cut up" themselves with razors.
Several prisoners told friends, who then contacted the Phoenix, that the two individuals who had tried to commit suicide had been saved by guards. The prisoners had since returned from the hospital to the prison, Magnusson said. He would not name them, citing privacy concerns.
Because of what these prisoners had done to themselves, and because "we had information that other people were going to" cut themselves, Magnusson said, razor blades for shaving had been taken from Supermax prisoners -- a ban that helped precipitate the hunger strike, he said.
As of October 18, Magnusson said, eight prisoners were participating in the strike down from 14 at its outset.
"We had a suicide," Magnusson said, to explain the strike's basic cause, adding that there were also "personal issues" for some prisoners. Ryan Rideout, of Augusta, had hung himself from a showerhead.
A former Supermax prisoner read to the Phoenix on the telephone a letter he said was from Supermax prisoner Michael Brine, who was taking part in the hunger strike. Brine said the prisoners also were protesting bans on toothbrushes, soap, radios, television sets, and a second sweatshirt.
Some of these items had been banned for some time.
The Supermax keeps prisoners in their cells 23 hours a day. Its incarceration of severely mentally ill prisoners, such as suicide victim Rideout, has been strongly criticized by civil-liberties and mental-health groups.
Rideout was buried in Belgrade on October 17. The state police were investigating his death.
The Governor's Political Prisoner
On November 13, 2006, Governor John Baldacci's administration sent the state prison's chief human-rights advocate, prisoner Deane Brown, to a dangerous supermax lockup, the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, more than 500 miles away, in Baltimore. Brown's lawyer and his best friend believe this decision was in retaliation for his activism?and put his life in danger.
Brown played a key role in revealing abuse of mentally ill prisoners in the Maine Supermax. He was the prime source for the Phoenix's prize-winning series of articles on this subject.
Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson said he made the decision "because [Brown] was a very serious threat to the facility." He would not elaborate. He said Brown was not sent to Maryland in retaliation for his activism.
Associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord said information on Brown's transfer would be withheld until the completion of investigations into a recent Supermax suicide and an alleged attempt by a woman to bring a gun to her prisoner husband.
"This place is only for the worst, the most violent criminals in the state of Maryland," said Chuck Canterna, a chaplain at the prison to which Brown had been transferred. Last year, a 20-year-old prisoner there was killed; another prisoner was charged with the crime.
Brown was sent to Maryland despite having been kept on "suicide watch" for several weeks in the Maine Supermax. In a suicide watch, a guard sits outside a cell and observes a prisoner's movements. During this time, prison authorities denied the Phoenix access to Brown.
His closest friend, Bethany Berry, of Rockland, believes Maine officials put him at risk in his transfer not only because of the dangerous place to which he was sent, but also because of his poor physical health. Brown, 42, is a diabetic and has other ailments.
Canterna, a Catholic priest, said Brown?s medical records were not sent to Maryland by Maine prison authorities, so he had not received insulin. Canterna was trying to get the records. Magnusson insisted they had been sent with Brown.
Brown had frequently mentioned to the Phoenix threats of retaliation by prison officials for his speaking out.
Brown's lawyer, Lynne Williams, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, of Bar Harbor, called him "a political prisoner."
"You don't have to be put in prison originally for your political beliefs to be a political prisoner," she said. "If they're punished for acting on their political beliefs . . . that, too, makes them a political prisoner."
Brown is serving a 59-year sentence for burglary.
Lockdown: What Do Prison Officials Have To Hide?
In mid-December 2006, I received a disturbing letter from a prisoner at the Supermax unit at the state prison.
It was about "Dino," Deane Brown.
A prison is by definition a totalitarian kind of place, where control is a way of life. Still . . .
"Dino was brought down here more than a week ago . . . and ever since then Mental Health has cleared him off this [suicide] watch at least three times that I know of. Every time he's cleared either the Chief of Security or the Deputy Warden put him back on. While he's on this watch he cannot have visits, phone calls, mail, or write letters out. He's completely stripped out except for a security dress to cover himself. He's not allowed his reading glasses or a book to pass the time. Officers won't let him sleep more than 15 minutes at a time before they bang on his door to make sure he's ok. Dino has stopped eating and taking his medication because of this treatment.
"Dino is not suicidal! This is the prison's way of restricting his access to the outside world and especially the media. Just last week all newspapers in the entire prison were confiscated, and no newspapers were allowed back into the prison for about five days. . . .
"[The Supermax officers] have perfected the art of what I call 'No Touch Torture.' Noise is the weapon of choice, and unless an inmate breaks down and gets placed on medication he's not getting more than 30 minutes of sleep at a time."
"If this is true, it is deeply disturbing," commented Shenna Bellows, the Maine Civil Liberties Union director. "Courts have found sleep deprivation to be an Eighth Amendment violation." The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments."
The description above of Brown's treatment was confirmed by other Supermax prisoners, and by Brown himself, writing from Maryland.
A year after beginning my series on the Supermax, I was still writing about the same subject, the torture of prisoners, although now it was combined with the subject of the denial to me of access to prisoners -- and the refusal of officials to answer questions.
On November 13, around the time I received the above letter, Brown was shipped out to a maximum-security prison in Maryland. He believed this transfer occurred to take him away from me.
Meanwhile, my attempts to find out directly from prisoners what was happening within the Supermax (by visits)became stymied. Officials began insisting that I be monitored by staff while interviewing prisoners, and that I be barred from asking prisoners questions about other prisoners. Beyond that, I would have to agree not to publish certain information -- determined by prison authorities -- even if the prisoner said it in the interview. And I would have to agree to have my notebook confiscated if it contained information "not authorized" by prison officials.
No respectable journalist would ever agree to these conditions. So the administration of governor John Baldacci effectively banned me from the prison.
In response to my continuing inquiries about prisoners, Denise Lord, associate commissioner, said the Corrections Department would not discuss individual prisoners because of "confidentiality" -- even though, in Brown?s case, I have a signed release from him -- and because of the ongoing investigations of a Supermax suicide and an alleged breakout attempt. Actually, her first words to me on Brown's transfer were, "We're not going to share information' about why he was sent to Maryland "because we're not going to."
Lynne Williams, Brown's attorney, said she intended to sue the Department of Corrections in a federal civil-rights action, with the support of the National Lawyers Guild, over the department's denial of Brown's First Amendment rights. She wanted to bring him back to Maine and allow him access to the press.
Update: Brown remains in Maryland; his suit is progressing through the federal court system. The Corrections Department is still insisting on impossible conditions for interviews.
Stonewalling Is Normal
A harder line: The brutal conditions and practices in the Maine State Prison's Supermax that I brought to public light included "extractions" of prisoners from their cells that were indistinguishable from beatings, lengthy stays of naked prisoners in a medieval-looking "restraint" chair, mad prisoners (in both senses of the word) coating the Supermax by throwing their feces and urine at guards, frequent self-mutilations, and suicide attempts.
Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson and associate commissioner Denise Lord promised reforms, some of which they instituted, such as retraining some prison staff, opening a new psychiatric wing for some prisoners, and lessening the use of the restraint chair for disobedient prisoners.
A year ago, Magnusson and Lord by and large cooperated with my reporting. In late 2006, however, as the newspaper stories continued, they took a harder line. They did not respond to several sets of e-mailed questions and to requests for interviews. And they stonewalled on several issues, such as . . .
The guard and the suicide: Since Ryan Rideout killed himself, several Supermax prisoners have made disturbing allegations about a guard taunting him -- that he didn't "have the balls" to kill himself, as his friend Jesus Rodriguez, 22, quoting the guard, said in a letter to me.
Rodriguez, who had a year left on a robbery conviction, was convincing and touching in his sincerity when he described the tragic death of his friend: "Because of Ryno's [Ryan's] death I tried to kill myself. . . . I miss the jokes and to hear him laugh and the talks about what he was going to do when he gets out in six or five months and because of a c/o [correctional officer or guard] he ended his life. Nothing has been done to the c/o. He still works here and still gives prisoners a hard time. . . . I will always love and miss you, Ryno."
Another prisoner wrote, "I saw the whole thing happen and have had trouble sleeping." He alleges that the same guard "told prisoner Rideout, when he was hanging from his sprinkler in SMU B-wing Room 114, that he could do better than that. His exact words were, 'Come on, Rideout, you can do better than that?'"
The Corrections Department wouldn't say if the guard was being investigated or even confirm his name, because, as associate commissioner Lord said, "I can't comment on personnel matters."
A sergeant's complaints: The Corrections Department wouldn't comment on another personnel matter: when a transcription of a frank exit interview of an articulate Maine State Prison guard sergeant, George Mele, became available on the Internet. A guard had given the transcript to Deane Brown, the human-rights-activist prisoner, who gave it to WRFR, the radio station to which he contributed in Rockland before he was shipped out to the Maryland Supermax. In the interview, Mele complained vigorously about the prison's "corruption," low morale, nepotism, "retaliation for reporting wrongs," forced extra shifts and overtime, low pay, poor leadership, inferior food, and administrative incompetence.
The authenticity of this exit interview was confirmed by Commissioner Magnusson, but he wouldn't discuss it. Mele, who went to work for Magnusson's probation and parole wing, wouldn't return phone calls. The interview is still available at:
Sluggish Response To Suicide
In December 2006, an eyewitness to the suicide of Ryan Rideout, a 25-year-old, severely mentally ill Augusta man who hanged himself with his bedding in his state prison's Supermax cell the previous October, called into question the official version of events. He described the response of guards as sluggish and cruel.
Joseph Bradley, 26, who had been recently released from the prison, told the Phoenix in an interview that it took a long time for a guard to respond to the alarm Bradley had sounded when he saw Rideout prepare to hang himself. Bradley said his cell was opposite Rideout's.
"I watched him tie the noose," Bradley said.
When Rideout started fixing it to a sprinkler head, Bradley said, he pressed an alarm buzzer, but, "No one came down for half an hour."
Then the guard who came taunted the "already hanging" Rideout for a couple of minutes as he sipped his coffee, Bradley said. He too quoted the guard: "Come on, Rideout, you can do better than that."
Bradley said the guard then went to the cellblock gate and called "Code Blue," an emergency signal, into his radio.
Bradley said the team that responded first put handcuffs and feet shackles on Rideout before he was cut down -- "before medical could do anything." This took several minutes, he said. Rideout "was gray," he added. Then he said the medical team tried to resuscitate him.
Warden Jeffrey Merrill's account is considerably different. He "praised the efforts of the staff to save the man," according to an October 9 article on the Rockland Courier-Gazette's Web site. The warden also told the newspaper that Rideout's suicide was discovered on a guard's normal rounds.
In December, Ryan Rideout's mother and brother filed a legal notice that they will pursue a wrongful-death suit seeking monetary damages against the state, warden Merrill, and unnamed guards at the Supermax.
In the fall, both Maine State Police lieutenant Gary Wright, head of criminal investigations for central Maine, and midcoast district attorney Geoffrey Rushlau had told the Phoenix they were not investigating a Supermax guard in the Rideout death. They both suggested, however, that state prison officials might be doing so. Prison officials would not answer questions on the subject.
Bradley and other prisoners said Rideout had complained that needed psychotropic medications had been taken away from him. Almost a year since Rideout's suicide, the Corrections Department still refuses to release information on disciplinary action against the guard, though prisoners report he has been fired.
Punish The Mentally Ill!
In March 2007 officials in Maine attorney general Steven Rowe's office tried to get a law passed that would have blessed the department's position that severely mentally ill prisoners should be punished before being treated. And they made their legislative effort in a controversial way.
The measure would have required prisoners committed to the Riverview Psychiatric Center because they were found "not criminally responsible" for assaults on guards due to insanity to first finish their prison sentences before receiving treatment in the state's mental hospital, which is in Augusta.
An assistant attorney general had gotten the Criminal Justice Advisory Commission (CLAC), a committee of judges and lawyers, to sponsor the provision, but CLAC quickly withdrew it from legislative consideration when the group discovered it might affect a lawsuit the attorney general (AG) was involved with.
The AG's office had not told CLAC of the suit, which sought to force the Department of Corrections to hospitalize Michael James, a state Supermax prisoner with severe mental illness. The department had defied a judge's commitment order by keeping him in prison, and the AG was defending Corrections.
In fact, one of the two assistants attorney general who developed the proposal to change the law, Diane Sleek, represents Corrections. The other, special assistant AG Charles Leadbetter, a CLAC member, had convinced the group to sponsor the change.
In an e-mail, Sleek said: "There was no attempt by this office to pre-empt by legislation the court case. Indeed, I do not believe that any legislation would have applied retroactively and, thus, would not have applied to the case being litigated now."
But other lawyers, including Michael James's attorney Helen Bailey, said the law could have affected appeals. John Pelletier, chairman of the AG-appointed but theoretically independent CLAC, said he pulled the provision from consideration by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee at an April 6 work session because "our practice is not to put forth changes that affect pending litigation."
James, one of the sickest men in the state prison, has spent years in the Supermax. Last summer, a Knox County jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity for 10 assaults on guards. After a judge committed him to Riverview, prison officials said the AG's office told them not to send him there. The AG's office would not explain the refusal.
James's trial lawyer, Joseph Steinberger, of Rockland, and the Disability Rights Center, of Augusta, represented by Bailey, sued to compel the state to obey the judge.
At a March 26 hearing, the change proposed in the law was opposed by the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill - Maine (NAMI Maine), and Bailey. She told the committee that leaving a mentally ill person in prison for years without proper treatment would probably result in him becoming more dangerous to guards.
Leadbetter appeared unmoved by appeals to humane treatment.
"Execution of punishment" should come first, he said in an interview. On the prison's treatment of mentally ill prisoners, he said: "I don't care whether it works or not."
Prisoners As Commodities
In April, 2007, Democratic governor John Baldacci's proposal to ship 125 Maine prisoners 2,000 miles to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) North Fork lockup in the Oklahoma boondocks ran into a chainsaw of criticism within his party. Critics raised questions, too, about the appropriateness of a corporation lobbying the Legislature to imprison human beings for profit. The lobbyist for the private prison company was James Mitchell, a close Baldacci advisor, campaign contributor, and fundraiser.
Department of Corrections officials said the transfers of prisoners from the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham would ease prison overcrowding, which they said they are mostly concerned about because it is a danger to guards. The department expected to have 2,200 prisoners by year's end, with 1,950 beds for them.
The Democratically controlled Legislature discussed the transfer as part of the state budget. But if the Legislature took too long to resolve the issue, Baldacci's office said, he might use his emergency powers to move the prisoners.
"Some legislators would hit the roof" if Baldacci moved too fast, said Jeremy Fischer, House Appropriations Committee chairman, though it wasn't certain they could do anything. In an e-mail, Fischer added: "I'm not convinced that Maine does need to send prisoners out of state."
Even on the Criminal Justice Committee, which supported the request, House chairman Stanley Gerzofsky said he did so "only as a last resort."
He sits on a Council of State Governments criminal-justice panel, and he felt the Kentucky-based national think tank could help Maine solve its prison problems.
The council worked with Connecticut to reduce the number of people sent to prison for probation violations and to furnish more drug and mental health treatment for people released from prison, plus more support for them in finding jobs and housing. As a result, Connecticut's prisoner numbers dropped.
Groups opposed to Baldacci's plan stressed the need for both immediate and long-range alternative actions to relieve overcrowding.
Zachary Heiden, of the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), suggested "supervised release" for nonviolent offenders. And the governor could commute sentences for model prisoners, he said. In an e-mail, Richard Snyder, of the Maine Council of Churches, said "hiring as few as three additional probation officers and assigning a normal load of new probationers from county jails to each would free up more than enough beds [in the jails] to house those prisoners slated to be sent out of state."
The NAACP Portland Branch and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also opposed shipping prisoners out of state. The groups said such a move would prevent families from seeing prisoners. "The best way to prevent re-offense after release is through strengthened ties to the community," several concerned organizations wrote the Appropriations Committee in a letter.
Many critics were opposed in principle to private, for-profit prisons.
"When you combine the profit motive and the desire to cut costs with a captive client base," bad outcomes occur, said David Fathi of the MCLU's parent, the American Civil Liberties Union, in Washington, DC.
Frank Smith, of the Private Corrections Institute, another industry critic, said escapes, guard turnover, assaults, prisoner recidivism (return to crime), and corruption were high in for-profit prisons.
Although most legislators contacted didn't see a problem, outside-the-State-House critics were dismayed by CCA?s lobbying of the Legislature to get Maine's prison business.
"I fear that this lobbying will tempt us to cross the line from concern for justice to the crass calculation of dollars and cents,? said Snyder, of the church council.
The Department of Corrections estimated it would cost $3 million to board Maine prisoners in Oklahoma for a year and $4 million at the county jails.
CCA is known for its political involvement. In 2006, it indirectly contributed $6,000 to Baldacci's re-election campaign via the Democratic Governors Association and $17,500 to Republican opponent Chandler Woodcock?s campaign, indirectly, via the Republican Governors Association.
CCA is the largest player in the for-profit prison industry. It made a profit of $105 million in 2006 on 72,000 prisoners in 64 prisons in 19 states (about $1,500 a prisoner; the company therefore would reasonably be predicted to earn $187,500 a year in profit on the Maine prisoners, if Baldacci's plan went forward).
In addition to helping Baldacci financially, CCA contributed to the last campaign of William Diamond, the Criminal Justice senate chairman, a conservative Democrat.
Jim Mitchell, the affable CCA lobbyist in Maine, said, "There is no connection at all between my advocacy for my clients and what I do in politics." He said, however, that he had spoken to Baldacci about the CCA plan.
The Legislature forced the governor to back down, and prisoners were not shipped out of the state. Instead, some have been housed at county jails, and a small correctional facility for minimum-custody prisoners has been enlarged. Absent sentencing reform overcrowding will soon become an issue again.
A Supermax "Graduate"
As of July 2007, the Portland Phoenix had reported for 20 months on inadequate mental-health care for Maine prisoners, especially for those in the Supermax inside the state prison. The Supermax makes mentally unstable prisoners worse, its critics say.
"I reached out and told them I need medication. I reached out and told them I shouldn't be out in society. I told numerous cops, numerous guards," Michael Woodbury, a recent Supermax "graduate," told reporters July 5, 2007, according to the Associated Press.
Woodbury, 31, from Windham, had just publicly admitted killing three men in a Conway, New Hampshire, store robbery July 2. Among his incarcerations, which began when he was 16, was a five-year sentence to the Maine prison (for robbery and theft) that ended in May. He had revealed in an on-line personal ad that he was held in the Supermax.
While serving his time, Woodbury gave a four-page "manifesto" to a prison therapist saying he "was going to crack like this," he told reporters.
His adoptive father told the AP Woodbury was mentally ill and did not get proper treatment in prison.
Citing state confidentiality laws, Maine associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord refused to discuss anything about Woodbury's incarceration or his treatment -- if any -- for mental problems.
Because Woodbury was not on probation, Lord disclaimed departmental responsibility for his actions after his release and rejected the idea they represented a failure of the department, whose mission includes working to "reduce the likelihood that an offender will offend again."
Governor John Baldacci's spokesman, David Farmer, said: "The [prison?s] mental health system does the best it can do with very limited resources," and "if there's a failure," it lies with Woodbury.
Mentally Ill Prisoner Gets Care, Despite State's Objections
A Maine State Prison Supermax prisoner whose commitment to the state's chief mental hospital was challenged by the Corrections Department finally was being treated there, after a judge for the second time ordered him to the Riverview Psychiatric Center, in Augusta, in July 2007.
In June, 2006, a Knox County jury had found Michael James not criminally responsible by reason of insanity for 10 assaults on prison guards, and the judge committed him to Riverview. But Corrections, following the advice of the Attorney General's office, refused to transfer him, arguing that James should have to complete the remaining 10 years of his sentence for robbery before getting treatment.
After complex and drawn-out legal proceedings, Justice Donald Marden disagreed, ordering on July 18 that James be sent to the hospital immediately. This time, Corrections complied. In his decision, Marden wrote that the public (represented by the prison staff) needed to be protected from James, who had spent most of his childhood in mental institutions.
But Corrections got something, too: James's time in the hospital would not count against his sentence -- because, Marden wrote, mental-hospital commitment does not constitute punishment.
Lawyers for both sides were unhappy with what they didn't get. Both planned appeals to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
But James was happy. He felt he was finally getting the treatment he needed.
"It's great here," he said in a private interview in a conference room in Riverview's forensics unit.
He said the "respectful" treatment by hospital staff was the "total opposite" of what he had suffered in the solitary confinement of the Supermax, where he had been held for years.
The guards "tortured me there," he said, adding that he got "zero" mental-health treatment in prison, even in the Supermax?s psychiatric wing.
In the court papers, the state did not reveal why it fought -- and was still fighting -- so hard to keep James at the prison.
Joseph Steinberger, one of James's lawyers, had an explanation: "Everyone is very aware of the danger that people at the prison could commit crimes" in order to be sent to Riverview. "Clearly this is the fear the state has. But general-population prisoners are not likely to prefer Riverview, just the guys whose mental illness is being treated at the prison by punishment with solitary confinement."
He added: "If this case puts pressure on the prison to treat mentally ill prisoners more humanely, that is a good thing."
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