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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.

She has worked in the 100-man Special Management Unit, the “Supermax,” where the cutters and others with the biggest self-destructive and aggressive urges are kept in solitary confinement — which, studies show, damages prisoners further, perhaps permanently. It’s also where prisoners suffer the most abuse from guards. It seems obvious to Dawson that the more the guards provoke the mentally ill inmates, the more they will do what the guards don’t want them to do. But the prison administration, she says, prefers guards “who are degrading to a prisoner.”

Her descriptions fit with the results of the Phoenix’s two-and-a-half-year investigation of the prison, which has revealed physical, sexual, and mental abuse of inmates. On the national level, a 2004 Human Rights Watch report found that, in a typical American prison, “a culture of brutality has developed in which correctional officers know they can get away with excessive, unnecessary, or even purely malicious violence.” In a 2006 report, the private, blue-ribbon Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that “Better safety inside prisons and jails depends on changing the institutional culture, which cannot be accomplished without enhancing the corrections profession at all levels.”

Human rights complaints
After the harassment incidents, Dawson filed a discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. Then, prison “sergeants and captains” retaliated because of her complaint, she recounted to Baldacci. They continued “to target and scrutinize me and my character by looking for ways to terminate me.” So she filed another complaint with the commission, this time invoking the state Whistleblower’s Protection Act.

In her letter, she added: “I had lost my spirit as a correctional officer. There is a culture of abuse among the guards at the prison.” Its major effect, she suggested, is on the prisoners: “Any guard who treats the prisoners with respect and a desire to rehabilitate them is targeted by the other guards, who call them ‘care and treatment providers.’ This term is used by guards to say, ‘You’re not a corrections officer.’”

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Related: Wave of reform, Stabbed in the back, Prisoners as commodities, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Prisons, John Baldacci,  More more >
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