For years controversy has churned over the Maine State Prison's treatment of both inmates and correctional officers. For the first time, legislators have taken action. The Government Oversight Committee late last month launched an investigation of the Warren prison's management, employee working conditions, and inmate medical services.
At about the same time, state controller Edward Karass, who audits state agencies, began an inquiry into possible irregularities in the prison's finances. And Governor John Baldacci's office is said to be reviewing allegations of what a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People official describes as "institutional racism" at the prison — a complaint of both prisoners and guards.
Meanwhile, the adequacy of medical care given prisoners is being challenged in several civil-rights lawsuits in federal court. In allowing a suit by an inmate to go forward, a judge recently commented: "The picture that this case presents is a disturbing one."
The Government Oversight Committee probe — authorized unanimously at a March 27 meeting in Augusta — is the result of complaints by unnamed citizens who were supported by Senator David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican committee member whose district includes the 925-inmate prison and the homes of many of its 400 employees.
The nonpartisan, independent Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA), a seven-person agency which serves as staff to the Oversight Committee, will conduct the investigation. The committee also decided to consider at a future meeting whether it would look into the effectiveness of substance-abuse programs operated by the Department of Corrections, which runs the prison system.
OPEGA director Beth Ashcroft says her agency will do a preliminary examination of the allegations to see if a longer investigation, which typically takes six months to a year, is warranted. Neither Ashcroft nor Trahan would say much about OPEGA's investigation or what led to it. Trahan comments: "I'm fulfilling my responsibility as a legislator when people bring forward allegations of wrongdoing." But he appears personally committed to investigating prison problems.
Complaints piled up
Over a year ago, guards and former guards complained to the Legislature's Labor Committee about working conditions in the prison system, and some accused Maine State Prison officials of mismanagement and potentially illegal behavior.
"I'm doing some work down there," controller Karass says. "There are a lot of allegations." He has not come to any determination, he says, and doesn't expect to complete his work for weeks. He wouldn't comment further.
In an e-mail, associate Corrections commissioner Denise Lord says that once the questions came to Commissioner Martin Magnusson's attention, "he contacted Ed Karass for assistance in objectively reviewing them." She downplayed OPEGA's investigation, saying the agency is just "performing its function" to look into how well state programs operate.
In last year's Labor Committee testimony, there were stories of poor morale, retaliation for complaints, poor training, and forced overtime. The result: stressed-out employees. In interviews with the Phoenix, guards and former guards have underlined the long hours often-inexperienced and sometimes very young guards are required to work because the prison is chronically short-staffed — and then some guards, they say, attempt to relieve their stress with brutality toward prisoners (see "Falling Down," by Lance Tapley, November 7, 2008). Corrections administrators dismiss many criticisms of working conditions, although they admit guard stress is real.
Medical services questioned
The prison medical services that will be under review have long been controversial, especially the psychiatric care. The "deinstitutionalization" of mental patients from state hospitals over a 30-year period has resulted in Corrections becoming one of the state's largest providers of services to the mentally ill — the department says 40 percent of the state prison's inmates receive psychotropic medications. Critics say its services are dangerously inadequate. Much of the medical care is supplied by Correctional Medical Services, a large, for-profit corporation criticized in other states for providing poor-quality care.
A major "service" provided to mentally ill inmates is their placement in the solitary-confinement cells of the 100-man "Supermax" or Special Management Unit. Then, when they become even more mentally ill — as a result of solitary confinement, critics say — some are moved to the prison's 32-bed psychiatric unit — and then, often, back to the Supermax.
A particularly tragic episode involving this revolving door occurred on October 5, 2006, when 24-year-old Ryan Rideout, in prison for burglary, hanged himself in his Supermax cell. Rideout was one of the most notorious mental patients in Maine, having stopped traffic in downtown Bangor three times in three weeks in 2004 by threatening to jump to his death from one of the city's highest buildings. Documents in a federal suit brought against the state by his family say he had tried to commit suicide in prison twice before and quote prisoners in his Supermax cellblock describing how a guard allegedly taunted him to kill himself. Yet after his death the prison warden denied Rideout was a suicide risk. (For more allegations about the guards' actions at the time of his death, see "State Sued over Inmate's Death," by Lance Tapley, March 7, 2008.)