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Old Media Access Consent Decrees Violated in Maine

The Maine Department of Corrections has been violating at least two of three 35-year-old federal court orders that grant prisoners access to the press, allow them to write to newspapers, and prohibit prison officials from arbitrarily transferring prisoners out of state if they exercise their rights. The state admits two of the orders have never been superseded. The court orders were discovered by the Portland Phoenix this spring.

In the early-1970s' activist climate, a Maine legal-aid group, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, won three prisoner-rights lawsuits against state prison officials. Those cases resulted in these rulings:

1) Prison officials must allow reporters to interview prisoners in all the state's prisons, with few restrictions;

2) Officials must allow prisoners at the Maine State Prison to write letters to reporters freely complaining about their treatment; and

3) Maine Corrections should not have moved a prisoner from one prison to another without a hearing or other due-process procedures. (In the case at issue, an activist prisoner had been abruptly shipped out of state.)

The orders are called consent decrees because each was imposed – decreed – by a judge after an agreement by the parties – consent – to settle a lawsuit.

To look at its actions – including aggressive resistance to press access to prisoners – the Maine Department of Corrections has ignored the consent decrees for years if not decades. Maine's attorney general Steven Rowe was asked about the decrees' authority. His department issued a statement on the two orders that deal with the press: "Nothing specifically supersedes them, but they are dependent on the past facts of the situation and how the law and the policy have since evolved."

However, University of Maine School of Law professor Orlando Delogu says, "I don't see how a consent decree handed down by a federal court involving the State of Maine and a group of plaintiff prisoners within a state institution could be or would be modified" even by a United States Supreme Court decision on a legal principle. Generally, says Delogu, a consent decree is "valid unless modified or repealed" by the court. "A consent decree binds the parties."

The AG's office says the order limiting the right of the Corrections Department to transfer prisoners to other prisons is no longer valid because the prisoner involved in the case, Augustus Heald, has died. But an attorney for a Maine prisoner shipped to Maryland in 2006 because of his activism disagrees. Lynne Williams, a National Lawyers Guild attorney of Bar Harbor, says she may use the court order in her legal efforts to bring Deane Brown back to Maine.

The 1970s' suits were brought against several top prison officials by several prisoners and, in the suit over the rights of reporters to interview prisoners, by a freelance writer, Norma Jane Langford. The Maine Civil Liberties Union helped on the Langford suit.

The three lawsuits were Langford v. Murphy, USDC, D ME, Case No. 12-197; Picariello v. Robbins, USDC, D ME, Case No. 12-189 and Heald v. Mullaney, USDC, D ME, case No. 13-23. The first two were "class action" suits.
Langford was brought on behalf of all Maine reporters and all Maine prison-system prisoners; Picariello was brought on behalf of just the state prison's prisoners. The consent decrees are available on the PLN website.

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Related legal cases

Langford v. Murphy

Picariello v. Robbins

The consent decree is in the brief bank.

Heald v. Mullaney