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Maine Prison in Turmoil

By the time Warden Jeffrey Merrill revealed on June 3 that three Maine State Prison employees had been put on paid leave as a result of a state police investigation of an inmate’s death in April, probes of corruption and other issues at the 925-prisoner lockup had already cast a harsh light on its management.

Governor John Baldacci said on June 4 he was “concerned about the apparent circumstances of the death” of 64-year-old sex offender Sheldon Weinstein, who died in his cell in the Warren prison’s solitary-confinement “Supermax” unit on April 24. He had been beaten four days earlier, and police are investigating inmates as suspects in what they term a homicide.

But several prison sources said Weinstein also had been refused proper medical treatment, and that this is the reason the employees were put on leave. On June 10, the Maine State Police said he died of “blunt force trauma,” but would confirm little else.

A prison chaplain, former state representative Stan Moody, of Manchester, said he hopes Weinstein’s death “will lead to widespread reform” within the prison. “Sadly, change often comes about through tragedy.” He believes he was one of the last people to talk with Weinstein.

Commenting on the prison’s mounting troubles, Baldacci also said in his June 4 statement he was confident Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson “will take appropriate disciplinary steps, if necessary, and correct any identified problems” at the prison. He expressed “complete confidence” in Magnusson: “He has been aggressive in his pursuit of allegations that have been made concerning the treatment of prisoners or other activities within the prison system.”

Weinstein, who — in addition to injuries from his beating — suffered from diabetes, had moved about the prison in a wheelchair. He had asked for medical attention in the late afternoon of the day of his death, it was refused “because he’s a sex offender,” and he was found dead in his cell when guards did the 6 pm “count” of prisoners, according to Michael James, a Supermax prison at the time who was interviewed at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, where he is now a patient.

James said Weinstein had been beaten by prisoners because he was a “skinner,” the prison slang for sex offender. Several prisoners reportedly have been put in the Supermax’s isolation cells as suspects in the beating, but officials would not confirm this. Violent inmates often target sex offenders. After his beating, Weinstein was moved out of the prison’s general population to a cell in the Supermax (officially called the Special Management Unit).

Officials would not identify the employees placed on leave in the incident, who now face an internal investigation. James said guards as well as prisoners treated Weinstein with hostility. Despite the shadow over the prison’s treatment of Weinstein’s injuries, Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland said his agency was “not looking at Corrections personnel as having any role” in the homicide.

Arrested in 2007, Weinstein, a retired salesman, had been sentenced last fall to two years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault several years ago against a young girl, a relative, in Berwick, where his family has a home. His residence in recent years had been in New Hartford, New York, though he stayed in Berwick awaiting the outcome of his criminal case.

His widow, Janet Weinstein, of New Hartford, said her estranged husband had broken a shoulder and a leg in a fall from a bunk at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, but had recently been transferred to the Warren prison because of his need for physical rehabilitation.

“Why was a 64-year-old man sentenced to a sex crime, in a wheelchair, [put] in the general population?” of a maximum-security prison, she asked, very upset, in a phone interview.

Her lawyer, Scott Gardner, of Saco, who represented Sheldon Weinstein in his sex-abuse case, said as a convicted sex abuser Weinstein “was hypersensitive to his own safety,” and he would have protested any risk he faced. He described Weinstein as “extremely frail.”
Gardner said a suit against the state for damages is under consideration.

The state police officer who had called Janet Weinstein on June 10 to tell her the death was a homicide provided few details in a “confusing” conversation, she said. And when she was informed of his death in April a Corrections Department officer had told her that her husband had died “apparently from natural causes,” she said.

(Ironically, before he entered the prison system, Weinstein had called the Phoenix to express fears that, because he was a diabetic, he would “be killed” by the prison diet.)
This case is not the only recent example of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. On June 3 Warden Merrill told the Rockland Herald Gazette that a prisoner had been recently stabbed by another prisoner using a “shank,” a homemade knife. The victim was not seriously injured, and the suspect was put in the Supermax, he said, but he disclosed little other information. Last year, Magnusson, in discussing a hostage-taking incident at the prison, told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, “There are probably 300 inmates right now with a weapon in their hand.” Legislators expressed no interest in this fact.

Investigations of corruption 
and prison ‘culture’

Some legislators, however, are expressing an interest in the prison. State investigations they launched in March have produced several reports critical of the prison’s management. (See “Lawmakers to Probe the Prison,” by Lance Tapley, April 10.)

The state controller’s office, which audits state agencies, told the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on May 22 that the prison’s two auto-repair garages, which employ inmates as workers, have such poor financial controls, including “inaccurate accounting” and poor documentation, that “it would have been difficult to find” fraud or theft had it occurred, according to auditor Ruth Quirion.

Her department’s detailed written report said complaints about corruption at the auto-restoration programs had been, for years, “not only numerous but continuous.” Later, in e-mails, Controller Edward Karass said other government agencies, including the FBI and the state attorney general, had been looking into the allegations since 1994, but they had not found proof of wrongdoing.

However, because the auto programs performed work for prison employees and their family members without charging for labor, there was a “conflict of interest” and an opportunity for improper personal gain, Quirion told the committee.

Oversight Committee member Richard Nass, a Republican senator from Acton, suggested the prison forbid employees from having any work done for them by prisoners, citing complaints also about two wooden sleighs restored for Warden Merrill in the woodshop. (The controller’s office found that Merrill had paid $1,295 for the work.)

At a previous committee meeting, on May 8, the controller’s office had reported it had not found evidence to support allegations by former and current employees that prison personnel had stolen state equipment and supplies or used them for private purposes, or that prison officers dipped inappropriately into a privately established fund dedicated to inmate self-improvement.

But in another report submitted to the committee on that date, the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight (OPEGA) found a troubling management-employee “culture,” and strongly advocated reform. The report zeroed in on complaints about management “intimidation of, and retaliation against, individuals attempting to raise concerns,” an atmosphere that may result in employees not reporting “unethical” situations. Employees also sometimes felt harassed or discriminated against by their superiors, the report said, and there was a general lack of respect for management. (For more on these issues, see “Falling Down,” by Lance Tapley, November 5, 2008.)

At the May 8 meeting, OPEGA’s director, Beth Ashcroft, had recommended the committee decide between two options: allow OPEGA to deepen its investigation of the need for reform, or have Corrections immediately develop a plan to reform its culture and start implementing the plan with the help of the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency that has already done some work to improve the way the prison is run.

The committee chose the second option, and on May 22 asked OPEGA to keep tabs on the progress of reform, working with the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, which has day-to-day oversight of Corrections. The Democratic-controlled Legislature — especially the Criminal Justice Committee — has traditionally been reluctant to second-guess Democrat Baldacci’s Corrections Department.

Commissioner Magnusson responded to the committee’s concerns by noting that he had shut down one of the auto-repair programs, Saving Cars Behind Bars, in which inmates restored classic “muscle cars.” He said he was taking the controller’s report “very seriously,” promising to improve the remaining programs.

Although Magnusson appeared apologetic about the prison’s operations and determined to fix them, in an interview outside the committee room he sang a different tune. He said he saw no reason to fire or discipline anyone because of what the controller’s office and OPEGA investigators had found. Mostly, they discovered “some accounting problems,” he said, and as for the prison-culture issue, “We have dealt with it,” citing several training initiatives.

Prisoner-rights activist Ron Huber, of Rockland, said he believes it’s a mistake for the Oversight Committee to allow Corrections to oversee the reform of a prison because of the inherent conflict of interest. He said activists will monitor the reform process.

Although Moody, the prison chaplain and former politician, is hopeful Weinstein’s death will catalyze change at the prison, he doesn’t see much happening, realistically, in the short term: “It would be politically nearly impossible at the end of an eight-year-term for a governor and commissioner to initiate major change. That will be a top agenda item for the next administration.”

This article originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix. It is reprinted with the author’s permission. Lance Tapley can be reached at

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