At a press conference addressing the violent attempted escape of three juvenile prisoners, Maine State Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte says Maine prisons are safer than they were three to four years ago. His comments came after the February 28, 2014 murder of prisoner Micah Boland, 37, who was tied up and stabbed 87 times without a guard noticing.
Advocates for prisoners say that Ponte's claims are patently untrue, and the local guard's union agrees. Judy Garvey, from the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says reductions in programs and increased double-bunking have contributed to a rise in violence, which has included two murders in the past year at the Maine State Prison in Warren. The coalition doesn't believe the prison is safe, says Garvey, "as evidenced by the increase in homicides and by the fear prisoners are expressing when they write to [the coalition]." Jim Mackie, staff representative for the local prison guards' union, says that in addition to the violent escape attempt, in which three prisoners beat a juvenile program worker and attempted to scale the perimeter fence, another state prisoner was beaten to death in June. The February murder of prisoner Boland drives home the point. "How can [Ponte] stand there and try to convince the public that somebody just got cut to ribbons and the place is still a safe place?" Mackie said. "You can't have these horrific incidences and stand there and say it's safer now than it ever was. It doesn't add up."
In the Boland murder, the prisoner alleged to have committed the murder was not detected until he walked up to a guard with the bloody knives in his hands and dropped them on her desk. Ponte would not comment on the specifics of the Boland murder, citing an ongoing investigation. Still, he claimed that a search of the Warren prison after the killing turned up "few" weapons, which is a good sign, he said. "When you find a lot of violence, you find inmates will arm themselves because they're afraid," Ponte said. "We're not finding a lot of weapons."
Ponte has presided over the Maine prison system since 2011, and initialized a new computer database for collecting information on assaults in the state's prisons. He began his career in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and was Superintendent of the notorious MCI-Walpole in the 1980s when violence was rampant and federal authorities stepped in to remove prisoners to the federal system, and harsh conditions led to federal lawsuits. See, e.g., Dumegan v. Ponte, 972 F.3d 401, 410 (1st Cir. 1992)(prisoner awarded costs as to Eighth Amendment claim against Ponte).
The assault at the Long Creek Juvenile Facility involved three prisoners, aged 18, 17, and 16, who beat a staff member nearly unconscious and locked him in a cell and then attempted to escape. The prisoners bragged about what they had done on the guard's radio before being captured.
Records obtained by a local newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, revealed that there have been at least 188 assaults at Long Creek since 2007. Ponte admitted that assaults at Long Creek were on the rise, but defended the Department's handling of Long Creek. About 100 boys and girls are detained there.
In response to the rising violence in Maine's prisons, union leader Mackie said that the union has asked that each guard be provided with a stab vest to protect them. Ponte said that he is "willing to discuss" the safety equipment, but that vests are generally reserved for high-risk areas, in part because they are uncomfortable.
Sources: www.onlinesentinel.com, www.pressherald.com
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Related legal case
Dumegan v. Ponte
|972 F.3d 401, 410 (1st Cir. 1992)
|Court of Appeals
|Appeals Court Edition