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Maine Prison System’s Board of Visitors: Secret, Unaccountable and Co-Opted

The state prison in Warren has been hammered in recent months by a prisoner murder and other violence, a prisoner hunger strike, legislative investigations exposing mismanagement and poor guard morale, and a request by human-rights groups for a federal probe of prisoner mistreatment. Most recently, the state Corrections commissioner, Martin Magnusson, told legislators that budget cuts have reduced staff to a precariously low level.

Many prison problems have persisted or gotten worse for years. So why hasn’t the Maine State Prison Board of Visitors, the blue-ribbon panel of five citizens appointed by the governor to oversee the way the prison is run, corrected at least some of the problems? This is a recurrent question among people concerned with prison issues.

To look into this question is to have a glimpse into a black hole of officialdom. The Board of Visitors, first set up 78 years ago, is composed of officials who generally meet in secret and rarely — if ever — challenge the administrators they oversee. The board didn’t even get around to writing and giving to the Legislature its legally required annual reports for the past four years until Juy 29, 2009, after the Phoenix asked to see them.

The board’s chairman, Jon Wilson, of Brooklin, a magazine publisher and member for eight years, claims his group has “made a difference” in prison management, but in a phone interview is awkwardly unable to cite an example. Another board member, John Atwood, of Sheepscot, hung up on this reporter when he was asked to cite a board accomplishment. Atwood, a former Superior Court judge and state commissioner of public safety, has been on the board for six years.

Denise Altvater, who runs a youth group at the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry and was appointed last year, refused to talk with this reporter. Ed Courtenay, of Warren, a former prison guard supervisor who has served on the board for 13 years, crisply says he sees the board’s role as limited and expresses deference to prison officials. The woman who had been the fifth member, Kendra Bryant, a Rockland psychologist, resigned earlier this year after two years on the board, and has not been replaced.

The law governing the board — which gives it broad powers to inspect the prison, review its management, and make recommendations in an annual report — specifically says the group is subject to the state’s Freedom of Access law, which obliges meetings to be public except for such things as personnel and litigation discussions and establishes a strict proto-col for going into nonpublic sessions.

But chairman Wilson admits the board has conducted most of its meetings with the public excluded. The most recent, on July 15, 2009 in Augusta, had no advertised public notice, and previous to it Wilson told this reporter it was closed. (He later admitted there should have been public notice.)

The annual reports are supposed to be distributed to the prison warden, the corrections commissioner, and the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, but since they hadn’t been in years it’s no wonder that Senator Earl McCormick, a West Gardiner Republican who served on the Criminal Justice Committee in the last Legislature, says, “I certainly haven’t heard that they’ve done a lot. I don’t recall they ever came before us.”

Impressions of the board’s invisibility and ineffectualness run deep.

“I’ve always wondered what they are supposed to do,” says Zachary Heiden, the staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, who as part of his job follows corrections issues.

Likewise: “I have no idea what it does,” says Sue Rudalevidge, a former Maine Council of Churches advocate for better treatment of prisoners.

This mental picture of the board goes back a ways.

Speaking about his extensive activism for prisoner rights in the 1970s and 1980s, Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Paul Thibeault, of Machias, says the board was “useless.” They were a “figurehead” group, he says.

In the present day, the board is “toothless,” says Ira Scheer, a former president of the prison’s guards union who no longer works for the state: “I’ve never seen anything done” by the board.

Summing up a common perception, Barbara Pierce Parker, a prisoner-rights activist, says board members “haven’t challenged” the Department of Corrections.

Board chairman Wilson paints a different picture, although it vividly reveals the board’s intimacy with the Department of Corrections.

Wilson, 63, is energetic and reflective. Wooden Boat, a magazine he founded in the 1970s, has long thrived. He had an unsuccessful experience, however, with an inspirational magazine called Hope. He closed it down in 2004, but he wrote articles for Hope about people who brought together convicted criminals and victims — or, in the case of murderers, the victims’ survivors — so the prisoners could face deeply what they had done. The work appealed to Wilson because, he says, he is “deeply angered” by abuse of authority, including “criminal attempts to control others.”

In 2001, the year then-governor Angus King appointed him to his first three-year term on the visitors board, Wilson founded a nonprofit, JUST Alternatives, through which he conducts training sessions in “victim-offender dialogue” at prisons around the country. Despite his victim-rights efforts, Wilson says, “I work respectfully with offenders,” and “I am passionately oriented toward human and individual rights.” He became the visitors board chairman in 2005.

Wilson employs a couple of mantras to explain the board’s activities: “listening” and “responsibility without authority.” These words reflect his view of the board’s role.

He says board members spend much of their time listening to concerns of prisoners, guards, and the employees running the prison’s programs. These concerns are then taken to prison management.

Wilson says Warden Jeffrey Merrill “looks carefully” at the concerns, but for reform Merrill “doesn’t get all the support he needs from the Legislature.” Problems at the prison have a lot to do with an insufficient budget, Wilson believes. (Merrill declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Wilson’s other mantra, “responsibility without authority,” defines in his mind the Board of Visitors limits. It’s not a governing board, but an advisory group, he says. There is no staff, and members receive no pay.

He has worked to have the group meet more regularly (it meets now about eight times a year), he says, and this year he partially opened two meetings to the public. He is aware of the state’s Freedom of Access law, but claims security and confidentiality concerns restrict how much the deliberations can be public.

Although Wilson appears careful to protect his relationship with prison authorities, he can be sharply critical of the prison. The institution is not run correctly, he says. “I think it needs help. . . . There are a lot of issues that need work.”

Nobody appreciates the overworked, underpaid guards in this understaffed, high-turnover institution, he says. There’s not enough money “to run that prison the way it was designed to run.” Among the often-inexperienced guards the stress, he says, is “like working in a war zone.”

The 100-man, solitary-confinement Supermax or Special Management Unit he sees as a special problem. It’s horrible to mix impulsive and mentally ill prisoners there, he says. But the state is “not willing to fund the alternative,” a major mental-health facility for prisoners.

Also horrible, he says, is the high recidivism or the return to crime by prisoners who have served their sentences: “It’s a failure rate. The public needs to understand the system is not working.”

He keeps coming back to the fact that the Legislature doesn’t pay attention to the prison. And this is because “most people” — voters — “don’t want to look at it.”

Yet his criticism doesn’t get translated into action. “We don’t lobby,” he says flatly. Sometimes his words seem fatalistic: “It’s a huge, huge ship to turn.”

When he is asked about the prison’s liability in the April death of wheelchair-bound sex offender Sheldon Weinstein, a murder apparently committed by prisoners but with possible responsibility on the part of prison staff, Wilson replies in a similar fatalistic manner that prison murders are inevitable: “If somebody wants to hurt somebody, they can. . . . I don’t think the prison is responsible.”

So who is responsible for the bad things that take place in a state institution? In addition to believing that the board doesn’t have authority, it would appear that Wilson actually doesn’t believe the board has much responsibility, either.

Wilson’s attitude is shared by a former member of the Board of Visitors, Tom Ewell. While he, too, sees the prison as a troubled place, he believes the board is limited in what it can do to correct the problems. For 19 years the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, Ewell, 66, retired in 2006, left the prison board after three years, and moved to Washington state. Like Wilson, he emphasizes the board’s role in “listening,” in being an intermediary. Although he says he kept “pushing for more active participation” of the board in prison affairs — and describes meeting resistance in “a world of distrust and secrecy” — he admits that he and the board didn’t do much as advocates for change.

Like Wilson, he can’t name a reform the board brought about, though he says he unsuccessfully tried to reduce the high phone charges that Corrections demands prisoners and their families pay for prisoner calls. “We were more diplomatic than adversarial” vis-à-vis the prison administration, he says.

He agrees state law “would have allowed a more adversarial role,” but the group works “from the inside.” That is the tradition: The board is not expected to be activist. He feels one of his accomplishments was obtaining the trust of commissioner Magnusson and prison staff: “I gave them the benefit of the doubt.”

When he was on the board, he says, the idea of public meetings “never even occurred to us.” Neither did the idea of annual reports with recommendations to the Legislature. He characterizes the attitude of the assistant attorney general who advises Corrections and the board, Diane Sleek, as “give [the public] the least amount of information,” calling her “the bulldog of the whole system.”

Blunt and thoughtful, Ewell, like Wilson, can be sharply critical of the prison.

Supermax solitary confinement he calls “inhumane” and “just cruel.” He expresses satisfaction that, as a Maine Council of Churches lobbyist, he helped stop Corrections from building a much larger Supermax back in the late 1980s.

As for the vast number of mentally ill people in prison, he expresses sympathy with prison staff: “They have mentally ill people thrown at them. What can they do?”

Like Wilson, he appears to throw up his hands at possibilities for significant reform.

Perhaps there is value in the limited role of “listening” that Ewell and Wilson see for the Board of Visitors. But if Wilson is personally angered by abuse of authority and passionately oriented toward human rights, as he claims, why hasn’t he led the board to correct the human-rights abuses against prisoners that responsible organizations believe take place regularly at the Maine State Prison? Why haven’t he and other board members advocated before the Legislature for less abusive treatment of the guards — fuller staffing and better pay, supervision, and working conditions? Why has the board largely kept its activities secret? Wilson and Ewell don’t have answers to these questions except this is way things have been done.

But Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Paul Thibeault has an answer: Board members “feel like they’re part of Corrections instead of representing the public.”

In other words, the Board of Visitors has been co-opted.

“You have to open yourself to civilian input,” says Jamie Bissonette, an American Friends Service Committee prison activist, speaking of the board’s secrecy. Otherwise, “it’s just a chat with the warden.”

And while the chat goes on, the abuse continues.

This article first appeared in the Portland Phoenix and is reprinted here with permission.

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