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Wave of reform

There is now a chance to fix Maine?s broken corrections system, but only if the public speaks up


2/6/2008 11:49:12 AM

A wave of change is moving swiftly toward Maine?s jails and prisons. It could bring major reform - or a bureaucratic jumble.

Activists, inmates, and defense attorneys have been crying for prison reform in Maine for years. Prisons and jails cost taxpayers an ever-increasing fortune, but rarely rehabilitate prisoners to prevent them from committing new crimes when they are released. They also fail to adequately treat their many mentally ill inmates, and the Maine State Prison has tortured some who are discipline problems (see "Torture in Maine?s Prison," by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005). State officials have appeared reluctant to change their ways.

But in late January the state Department of Corrections, which administers eight prisons as well as the probation system, and the county governments, which run Maine?s 15 jails, jointly announced a plan to create a nine-member state Board of Corrections. If approved by the Legislature, the new board would oversee, coordinate, and - theoretically - reform both prisons and jails by instituting "evidence-based practices" - by which officials mean practices that work. On February 4, the Legislature?s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee began crafting a bill to make the proposal law.

"Everything is up for grabs" in the state?s penal system, says Peter Lehman, of Thomaston, a prison-reform activist, PhD sociologist, and former Maine State Prison inmate who is monitoring the committee?s work. "Major changes, reforms, realignments are possible."

Stan Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick), the committee's House chairman, concurs. "Absolutely," he says, the opportunity exists to redo corrections in Maine.

Under the plan, the governor would appoint Board of Corrections members, subject to confirmation by the committee and the state Senate. But many details of what the board and the new prison and jail system will be - and do - are likely to depend on citizen input. Gerzofsky says his committee will hold at least 100 hours of meetings for public comment. The committee also will hold a public hearing after it writes the legislation.

The new correctional scheme has its origin in demands from taxpayers and politicians to control prison and jail costs. But the prison-reform and human-rights community that Peter Lehman represents is hopeful its voice will be heard more clearly now. A new, grassroots Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition - the first statewide group in many years to be devoted to prisoner issues - was launched on January 20 when 35 people met in a Belfast church. The coalition brings together Portland?s Blackbird Legal Collective, Waldo County?s Restorative Justice Project, Ellsworth?s Volunteers for Hancock Jail Residents, the Maine Native Prison Project, Peace Action Maine, and other organizations.

Members of the founding group included a carpenter, a security guard, an attorney, a college professor, a "lay-ordained Zen Buddhist," and family members and friends of prisoners - plus former prisoners such as Lehman, Raymond Luc Levasseur, and Robbie Bothen (the latter two among the founders of SCAR, the Statewide Alliance for Correctional Reform, which was active in the 1970s).

The coalition?s aim is to secure better conditions for Maine?s inmates - and to reduce their numbers, which, as in the rest of our tough-on-crime nation, have been on the rise for many years, despite declining crime rates. Harshness and overcrowding have put a strain on prisoners, guards, and state and county budgets. Liberal human-rights activists and conservative budget-cutters, it turns out, share interests.

"I believe we have organized at a critical moment," Lehman says.

Activists have already won the first battle - rather, the county governments won it for them.

Democratic Governor John Baldacci had proposed that the Corrections Department take over the jails, closing or downsizing five of them. Baldacci?s idea, designed to facilitate immediate cost-cutting, would have done little, in the view of reformers, to address the root causes of the rising prison and jail costs and would have increased prisoner suffering by separating inmates from families and communities. Such separation, the critics say, increases the likelihood of a prisoner?s return to crime (recidivism) once he or she is set free. Reformers also see Maine?s Corrections Department as dysfunctional and trapped in the counterproductive American penal philosophy.

County officials fought Baldacci using many of the reformers? arguments, and they found public support.

Not quite a compromise

"Today we may have forged a new direction for corrections in the state of Maine," said Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story in announcing the Corrections Board proposal to the Criminal Justice Committee in a crammed State House hearing room on January 28.

Story touted the scheme as a compromise between Baldacci?s plan and an alternative proposal, for the formation of something called the Maine Jail and Community Corrections Authority, which had been developed by the counties. But he looked relaxed and confident - as if the counties clearly had come out the winner. The Corrections Board looked a lot like the counties? proposed corrections authority.

The counties also won a promise from Baldacci that he would back off from trying to close jails. The state board will decide the future of each jail in looking at the entire corrections system. And the counties won the state?s commitment to assume the counties? jail-construction debt payments (about $10 million a year) and to freeze jail-associated property taxes.

A dozen Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition members showed up for the announcement. After officials presented their plan, the reformers testified. They urged legislators to seize this opportunity to profoundly restructure the system: reduce sentences, give proper treatment to Maine?s mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates, improve post-release programs to reduce recidivism, and require more use of alternatives to incarceration such as probation.

The next battle in the correctional war will be over the makeup of the Corrections Board. As the proposal now stands, two of its members will represent the governor and two the counties. Five more will represent the public, and have no formal allegiance to any official. These members could provide fresh, independent-of-the-bureaucracy thinking on how to deal with prisoners.

From inmates - in both state prisons and county jails - the Corrections Board is bound to hear many serious complaints. At the meeting in Belfast eight days earlier, activists had developed a long list of needed reforms, including an end to physical and sexual abuse by guards, better health care, less-expensive telephone charges when prisoners call family members, and the renewal of uncensored news-media access to prison inmates.

Although many such reforms could eventually result from the current discussions in Augusta, militating against reform is the Criminal Justice Committee?s eagerness to please the Corrections Department in designing the new set-up. This attitude was in evidence on February 4 at the committee?s first work session on the proposal. At that meeting, Peter Lehman, to his dismay, was the only representative of the new activist coalition.

Maine?s and America?s penal system has run for decades on the high octane of harsh retribution, resulting in millions of human beings now behind bars and a national incarceration rate five times what it was 30 years ago - the highest in the world. But it?s possible Maine politicians are beginning to gain an understanding of what the Zen Buddhist at the Belfast meeting would call karma: Vengeance has a big price tag, and compassion can be cost-effective.

Lance Tapley can be reached at .

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