The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures

Time for a clean sweep?

A former guard calls for prison reform
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  July 23, 2008

In early 2007, Rhonda Dawson, a thoughtful, candid, 45-year-old African-American guard at the Maine State Prison in Warren, quit her job after four years because, she says, of racist taunting from her fellow correctional officers.

She was fed up, too, she says, with a guard culture nourished by the prison leadership that encourages the degradation and other abuse of both guards and prisoners, black and white. Some officers turned against her, she thinks, because she wanted to help the prisoners. But reforming inmates is not the prison program, she says. Punishment is.

After she quit, Dawson wrote Governor John Baldacci — she shared the letter with the Phoenix — describing the “racially harassing phone messages” that had been programmed to pop up on the telephone display in front of her while she was the receptionist in the prison lobby. In addition, “a pink dog food bowl was placed on my desk with a bag of dog food” inside it. She got the message.

Lively, young-looking, a colorful dresser, Dawson, who is single, was born in West Virginia and came to Maine from Florida in 2001. In an interview at a picnic table in Augusta’s Capitol Park, not far from the Department of Transportation building where she now works, she emotionally reveals — “Write this down!” she orders, jabbing at a reporter’s notebook with a finger — that she has been a foster child, a drug addict, homeless, and on welfare.

But life forced her to confront what she had become. She found herself pregnant and unmarried at 29 and gave up her baby for adoption. “I had brought this person into my hell with nothing to give her,” she says. “But she saved my life. Sometimes I feel pain can be a blessing.” Dawson stopped destroying herself. Her home now in postcard-pretty Camden is a universe away from what she once experienced.

So she knows it’s possible to redeem yourself: “That’s why I wanted to work at a prison” — to help people change their lives.

“I know from experience what it feels like to be looked upon as a menace to society,” she wrote Baldacci in her poignant letter. Even in her new life in Maine, she wrote, “In some ways I feel like I am a prisoner” because of the lack of racial diversity here and the lack of understanding of what minorities have gone through.

“She’s a brilliant woman, and she’s been through everything,” says Dewey Fagerburg, of Lincolnville, a retired minister and former advisor to the prison chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “In that letter she wrote the governor, she tells the truth about what’s going on at the prison.”

In the 950-man prison, rehabilitation is utterly ignored, Dawson says. Even if the officials wanted to help the prisoners, they’d have a hard time because there isn’t enough staff. As examples of those who get little help, she describes the mentally disabled and the mentally ill inmates. “There are some very, very ill people at the prison,” she says, “like the ‘cutters’” — prisoners who repeatedly cut their own flesh.

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Business, Rhonda Dawson,  More more >
| More

Share this entry with Delicious
  •   MICHAEL JAMES SENT BACK TO PRISON  |  April 16, 2014
    The hearing’s topic was whether James’s “antisocial personality disorder” was enough of a mental disease to keep him from being sent to prison.
  •   LOCKING UP THE MENTALLY ILL  |  April 03, 2014
    The merger of the prison and mental-health systems continues
    The conference was held in March despite the risk of a snowstorm because its organizers wanted “to reach the Legislature while it’s in session,” co-coordinator Fred Horch said.
  •   ANATOMY OF A RIP-OFF, PART II  |  March 06, 2014
    Imagine if state government gave out millions of dollars a year to fat-cat financiers, big banks,  and speculative ventures without monitoring how the money is spent — basically, giving it to whoever walks in the door as long as they flash a few credentials.
  •   ANATOMY OF A TAXPAYER RIP-OFF  |  February 19, 2014
    To try to restore several hundred mill jobs to the historic paper-making North Country towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket, Maine’s politicians, in a bipartisan manner, have given away and are planning to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to various corporate interests, including big, out-of-state banks.

 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2014 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group