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Prison Reforms Under Maine’s New DOC Commissioner

Several weeks after firing Maine State Prison warden Patricia Barnhart on January 10, 2013, and two years after taking over the Department of Corrections (DOC), Commissioner Joseph Ponte appears determined to continue – and ramp up – his forceful program of reform.

In an interview at the DOC’s Augusta headquarters, the calm, 66-year-old corrections veteran spoke about his accomplishments, intentions and frustrations. In spite of the latter, running the department “is the most fun I’ve had,” he said. Maine has a “small enough” corrections system so “you can see the result” of your work.

Accomplishments

New Philosophy and Leadership

Within the limits of a tight budget and some recalcitrant correctional officers, Ponte is trying to replace warehousing and punishing prisoners with what they need to turn their lives around. When he took over the DOC he saw how well that approach worked at Maine’s two youth centers, where the recidivism rate had declined significantly. He decided to apply the approach to adult offenders.

Ponte’s philosophy is seen in his choices for his recently reconstituted team. Rodney Bouffard, longtime head of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, has been named acting warden of the state prison in Warren. Long Creek was “a grim place” a dozen years ago, in the words of the DOC’s just-retired juvenile services chief Barry Stoodley. Bouffard transformed the facility into a national model for reform, emphasizing psychological treatment and education.

Ponte has put Joseph Fitzpatrick, the psychologist who has directed the department’s mental health services, into Stoodley’s former job. Cynthia Brann, a former regional juvenile offender administrator, now heads up adult probation and the state’s five minimum-security facilities.

“We have to present opportunities for the inmate” to be successful, Ponte said. “Get these guys out of the cellblock.” He noted, though, “We don’t have the level of services on the adult side as we do on the juvenile side.”

Solitary Confinement

Under Ponte’s watch, Maine has become a leader in solitary confinement reform. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.20]. Generally, there are 35 to 40 prisoners in the state prison’s “supermax,” as opposed to an often-full-up 100 in the past. Some prisoners only spend hours or a few days there, to cool off. Ponte has spoken in other states about his success in reducing the use of solitary. Still, a lot of states “are denying the need.”

By throwing out one-size-fits-all disciplinary rules, Ponte virtually eliminated once-common supermax prisoner self-mutilation (“cutting”) and the guards’ violent “cell extractions” of disobedient prisoners to take them to the restraint chair. Instead, guards now negotiate with a troubled prisoner. Maybe it’s necessary to “give them something,” Ponte said. He cited an example of letting a prisoner paint murals.

Mental Health Care

Ponte said punishment is no longer used to control mentally ill prisoners in the supermax’s Mental Health Unit. Gen-erally, six to eight prisoners are there; in the past, all 20 cells often were full.

Medical Care

Last year Ponte replaced the DOC’s heavily-criticized health care provider, Corizon, with Correct Care Solutions, another national company. “The change has been positive,” he said, adding that he receives far fewer complaint letters from prisoners. He’s gotten control of medical overspending, in the last fiscal year covering a $1.2 million overage from the previous year and producing a small surplus.

Stable Budget

The once ever-rising corrections budget has been stabilized, a change helped by the reduction last year of guard overtime expenses by $2.4 million.

Intentions

Probation

Ponte has hired 12 assistants to aid probation officers with paperwork and to oversee low-risk probationers. This should enable officers to spend more time helping people on probation “do well,” he said – instead of just catching them in violations. Caseloads have been as high as 120 per officer. The goal is to cut the number in half. “We’re just starting to see the drop in the caseloads,” he noted.

Half the state’s prisoners are incarcerated due to probation violations. Instead of routinely sending violators to prison, Ponte is trying to reduce the number by using “sanctions,” such as a geographical restriction on movement for missing an appointment.

Youthful Offenders

Under the theory that what works for people under 18 will work for those 18 to 25, Ponte wants to create a Youthful Offender Program at the Mountain View youth center in Charleston, for the 60 to 80 “most challenging” prisoners in that age group. He’s asking the legislature to authorize it, but said he can implement it without new funding. The program would be on the “cutting edge” nationally.

Frustrations

Staff Resistance

“Change is difficult,” Ponte said. He believes he’s overcoming staff resistance to his reforms – seen in the unusual defense by a union spokesperson of a management official, Warden Barnhart. But Ponte admitted he needed to have more conversations with prison employees. Still, “I don’t see any big revolt.” Guards used to get hurt, he noted, during cell extractions. “The staff see it’s better for them” under his new policies.

“The overarching issue is personnel. The commissioner reached to eliminate some of the largest problems, but there are many others who are either unwilling or unable to conform to the new policies,” stated Jim Bergin, co-coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Staff Pay Freeze

Ponte noted that the state worker pay freeze makes for “difficult conversations,” and “I don’t have an answer to that.” The governor and legislature determine the budget.

And Personally...

Ponte said he has the failing of trying “to do too much too quick.” Regardless, he has many supporters. “I give Commissioner Ponte high marks for effort.... He engaged the advocacy community, resolved the segregation [solitary confinement] issue, and released a number of high-ranking administration officials who had been standing in the way of transparency,” remarked former Maine State Prison chaplain Stan Moody, who noted that other DOC employees have tried to undermine Ponte’s efforts.

The Juvenile Offender Model

Bartlett “Barry” Stoodley, 68, who retired February 1, 2013 as associate commissioner for juvenile services after 42 years at the DOC, credits independent Governor Angus King with pushing for corrections reform more than a dozen years ago. The scandal-ridden Long Creek youth facility was a major concern.

The quiet-voiced Stoodley was appointed to run the juvenile system in 2000. “You had to be blind and in a hole 20 feet deep” not to think something was wrong with the old system, he said in an interview.

Long Creek’s staff, he said, first responded to reform with, “You’ve taken our [management] tools.” Stoodley described how its new chief, Rodney Bouffard, who had run the Augusta Mental Health Institute, “would demonstrate personally” how to implement new ideas. “De-escalation” – talking to unruly young people – was used instead of placing them in the restraint chair.

Long Creek became less violent and fewer offenders returned. “Leadership is critical,” Stoodley said.

Stoodley spread reform to the new youth center at Mountain View. Now, continuing with Bouffard’s appointment as the new acting warden of the state prison, Ponte is rolling out this gentler approach to adult prisoners. Stoodley said research shows the “principles of effective intervention” work for both juvenile and adult populations.

Ponte has been “like a sponge” for new ideas, he said.

“Commissioner Ponte and Mr. Stoodley ... have demonstrated significant leadership and commitment to increasing safety and human rights at our prison facilities,” noted Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

This article originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix (http://portland.thephoenix.com), and is reprinted by permission of the author.

 

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