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Secret, unaccountable, and co-opted

If the prison Board of Visitors had done its job, it might have helped prevent several recent tragedies
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 17, 2009

monkey main

The state prison in Warren has been hammered in recent months by an inmate murder and other violence, a prisoner hunger strike, legislative investigations exposing mismanagement and poor guard morale, and a request by human-rights groups for a federal probe of prisoner mistreatment. Most recently, the state Corrections commissioner, Martin Magnusson, told legislators that budget cuts have reduced staff to a precariously low level.

Many prison problems have persisted or gotten worse for years. So why hasn’t the Maine State Prison Board of Visitors, the blue-ribbon panel of five citizens appointed by the governor to oversee the way the prison is run, corrected at least some of the problems? This is a recurrent question among people concerned with prison issues.

To look into this question is to have a glimpse into a black hole of officialdom. The Board of Visitors, first set up 78 years ago, is composed of officials who generally meet in secret and rarely — if ever — challenge the administrators they oversee. The board didn’t even get around to writing and giving to the Legislature its legally required annual reports for the past four years until last month, after the Phoenix asked to see them (see sidebar, “Miraculous Appearances”). 

To co-opt: To neutralize or win over through assimilation into an established group. 

Prison warden resigns

Amid the turmoil swirling around the Maine State Prison, Warden Jeffrey Merrill announced his resignation at an August 10 prison-staff meeting. The state Corrections Department said he would be given a new job leading the department's energy-conservation efforts. Commissioner Martin Magnusson will take over day-to-day prison management, though Merrill, who had been warden for 14 years, will remain at the prison for several months to help in the transition to a new warden.

The department has been strapped for cash, but deputy commissioner Denise Lord said Merrill would be paid with funds from “a vacant position.” She said she didn't know what his salary would be. Asked if Magnusson had asked Merrill to leave, she replied: "He and the commissioner have been talking for several months now about options for him." She said Merrill was "ready to take on new responsibilities."

The board’s chairman, Jon Wilson, of Brooklin, a magazine publisher and member for eight years, claims his group has “made a difference” in prison management, but in a phone interview is awkwardly unable to cite an example. Another board member, John Atwood, of Sheepscot, hung up on this reporter when he was asked to cite a board accomplishment. Atwood, a former Superior Court judge and state commissioner of public safety, has been on the board for six years. 

Denise Altvater, who runs a youth group at the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry and was appointed last year, refused to talk with this reporter. Ed Courtenay, of Warren, a former prison guard supervisor who has served on the board for 13 years, crisply says he sees the board’s role as limited and expresses deference to prison officials. The woman who had been the fifth member, Kendra Bryant, a Rockland psychologist, resigned earlier this year after two years on the board, and has not been replaced.

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Related: Time for law to end torture, Miraculous Appearances, Corrections changes, More more >
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Re: Secret, unaccountable, and co-opted

Regarding Lance Tapley’s latest effort – on the Maine State Prison Board of Visitors – at what he sometimes refers to as “advocacy journalism,” it might be more appropriately termed “agenda journalism.” My experience of his handling of such topics as these suggests that he shapes the story, and then he begins doing the reporting to suit his thesis or his bias. As I told him during a conversation with him, when it comes to those interviews never granted – or the interviewees who hang up on him – he has only himself to blame. Those individuals do not trust his willingness or his ability to inquire into all sides of a question, as mainstream journalists are required – and committed – to do. Now that he has seriously misattributed quotes to me, and imposed his own astonishingly uninformed conclusions upon his reporting of conversations with me, I see – as others have – that it does not help to speak plainly with him because he freely configures attributions to suit his agenda. 

When Mr. Tapley asked, “Can you name one thing that the Board of Visitors has accomplished?” My answer certainly didn’t feel awkward to me. It was simply, “I’ll think about it.” But he did not ask the question again. Upon reflection it should have been, “We have conveyed dozens of inmate and staff concerns to the administration, which we believe has led to a more open and flexible approach to policies and procedures at MSP. It is possible that many of these concerns would have never been conveyed, or as rigorously examined as they were by virtue of the Board’s presence.” But I don’t think that would have helped much, because Mr. Tapley has an unassailable agenda.

As Mr. Tapley knows from all that I have said and written, the issue of closed meetings of the Board of Visitors relate substantively and directly to matters of safety and security of the facility and of individuals – both staff and inmate – within the facility, not to “secrecy.” He also knows that I freely admit to erring on the side of this safety and security issue – something I believe he should have reported. He should also have reported that this very issue of security versus transparency has been one of the critical and recurring areas of clarification articulated in our reports and in our July testimony before the Joint Standing Committee.

What I conveyed to Mr. Tapley regarding the Board’s July 15th meeting was that, because this was a private and direct – and not a regularly scheduled – meeting with the Commissioner, and because there was to be no public component to it, I did not realize that a public notice was necessary. I told him that Assistant Attorney General Diane Sleek advised me, after this meeting, that notice should have been published regardless of that. Had he included this, it would have served to explain rather than impugn. I have never said “the prison is terrible,” referring to MSP, because I would never do that. I might have said “prison (generally) is terrible,” because it is, as I know from nearly ten years of being involved with a number of prisons around the country. I don’t know what Mr. Tapley means when he refers to my appearing careful to protect my relationship with prison authorities, but if he means that I have tremendous respect for corrections professionals at all levels, he is right. Other than that, I have nothing to “protect.” But notice, if you will, how Mr. Tapley quotes and attributes. I know, for example, that I did say to him what is quoted in that paragraph: “I think it needs help. There are a lot of issues that need work.” But I did not say “The institution is not run correctly.” That is one of his innumerable inventions – examples of which abound in this piece. Look for attributions without quotations for examples of this style, and read them with skepticism. It’s important to point out – and it should have been reported – that Boards of Visitors are not allowed to lobby. The most severely egregious and dangerous of the attributions Mr. Tapley has made up is that I could ever have said anything remotely close to “… prison murders are inevitable.” To begin with, the utter and absolute insensitivity and disrespect that such a remark would convey to the family and friends of Mr. Weinstein – to say nothing of the system we’re all working hard to improve – would be impossible for me, as anyone familiar with my work and my style knows. I have never said this, or anything like it. In fact, Mr. Tapley heard me say specifically that I have no knowledge about the death of Mr. Weinstein because his death is still under investigation, and members of the Board of Visitors are privy to no confidential information connected to the investigation. On the other hand, as a way of illustrating the huge challenge of management, safety, and violence prevention in prisons, I did refer to the beating deaths in prisons by other inmates of sex offenders Jeffrey Dahmer in Wisconsin, and John Goeghan in Massachusetts. I said I did not think that the prisons could be responsible because, in fact, when an inmate wants to hurt another, he can do so very easily. Anyone who’s ever worked in a prison knows that assaults – even fatal assaults – happen in matters of seconds, and high staff-inmate ratios increase the risk of this potential exponentially. In any case, my attitude – as anyone who knows me will certainly attest – is anything but fatalistic. In addition, if the idea, that I believe we on the Board don’t have much “responsibility” either, is truly how “it would appear” to Mr. Tapley after all that he has heard and read from me, The Phoenix ought to consider retiring him on that basis alone. Reporting on his conversation with a former member of the Board, Mr. Tapley should have reported (a) that Tom Ewell (who was a very impassioned and committed member) actually retired from the Board in early 2003 – more than six years ago – and (b) that the revised Legislation relating to the work of the Boards of Visitors, and of our reporting, took effect in late 2005. Much of the work of the MSP Board since then has been in the clarifying and defining of our roles and responsibilities, as our July Summary Report to the Joint Standing Committee – of which Mr. Tapley has a copy – clearly states. Mr. Tapley knows, if he has read our reports, that we have been meeting eight times a year for the past four-plus years that I have been chairman to try to get to the heart of what is right and what is wrong at these facilities, and, for that matter, in the whole prison system. If we did not believe in the possibility of significant reform, we would not be doing what we do. Each of us has other commitments to try and balance, and none of us has the time to chase after impossible or unachievable objectives. In any case, I have never conveyed the slightest suggestion that I “throw up my hands at possibilities for significant reform.” On the contrary, as our July Summary Report to the Joint Standing Committee states – with regard to our recommendations for increasing staffing levels for both Security and Inmate Programs, “We [the Board] believe there should be much more robust exploration and discussion of alternative approaches in such challenging times. When it comes to public safety, we cannot just throw up our hands and say, ‘there is no money.’” Since we have never met him, Mr. Thibeault of Pine Tree Legal has no idea how any of the Board members feel. As the MSP Board of Visitors web site has stated for years, we represent the interests of the people of Maine in prison matters. But we mean the interests of all the people of Maine. There is a huge and substantive difference between “secrecy” and confidentiality for safety and security reasons. Mr. Tapley knows the Board has held public meetings, and he also knows that we instituted a new public component protocol for meetings earlier this year. Moreover, at no time have I ever answered a question with anything like “this is the way things have been done.” In fact, we do have answers to the questions. The problem is that Mr. Tapley doesn’t like the answers. As for advocating for better staffing, pay, and treatment of officers, the Board has long been committed to this. We wrote a lengthy and impassioned letter on this subject to Governor Baldacci several years ago. Mr. Tapley could have learned about it if he had actually asked us this question, but he did not. Instead, he chose to lead with his assumptions and presumptions. And I don’t see him addressing such questions to the officers’ union. On the subject of inmate abuses, Mr. Tapley appears to have no real understanding of what it is like to live and work in a prison. I don’t know what he imagines as abuses, except what I have read in his florid descriptions of “mass torture” there, but his writings reflect a total absence of understanding of how severely oppositional and defiant inmates act out in the violent ways they do. The basic fact is that inmates who follow the rules and behave respectfully would never describe their treatment as torture and abuse, in my opinion. Prison is a very tough place to have to be, and every self-respecting inmate will admit this. But most inmates know they came to prison because of choices they made, and the job of corrections is – or should be – to help them become more pro-social and more productive citizens, if possible – whether on the inside or the outside. This is what the Board believes, and we have done a lot of advocating – for inmates and for staff – and we’re very proud of our efforts. No unbiased person who has read any of the reports from the Board could possibly conclude that it has been “co-opted.” As these are public documents, Mr. Tapley could have quoted at length from any and all of them. But doing so would not have served his agenda. In fact, I believe his sidebar clearly illustrates how the Board has not been co-opted. Regarding Mr. Tapley’s mention of Ms. Jamie Bissonette, the Board has listened gratefully on two occasions to concerns that Ms. Bissonette has articulated, and it has conveyed those concerns to the prison administration. We are certainly open to, and welcoming of, citizen input, and we have been contacted by citizens on a number of occasions regarding a number of issues. I’m not sure what “it’s just a chat with the warden” means, but I suspect Mr. Tapley has taken this quote out of some other context, and attached it to suit – a method at which he is very adroit. Perhaps the following anecdote best illustrates what I now see more clearly than I did. After our testimony before the Joint Standing Committee in Augusta in July, Mr. Tapley asked me a few questions in the hallway outside. I noticed he was scrawling notes as I spoke, and I asked him if he was writing in shorthand, because that’s how it looked to me. He said no, but we both acknowledged how valuable it would be to have this skill. And then he said, “But this works because, by the time the piece is published, people don’t remember exactly what they said.” It’s a pathetically revealing admission on the nature of his approach, and it is certainly not what they teach in journalism school. My remarks to the Joint Standing Committee in July were, indeed, “full of apologies about the Board’s deficiencies in reporting,” and I did express “confusion about the board’s role,” and I “repeatedly asked the committee for guidance.” This was an embarrassing failure on my part to understand the precise requirements of annual reporting to the Joint Standing Committee. The reason the annual reports “suddenly materialized” was that it suddenly became clear to us that the “Summary Report” we were preparing for our Joint Standing Committee presentation in July would require substantive reports from previous years for background – and we set about creating them. As Mr. Tapley knows, we had been trying to get the attention of the Joint Standing Committee on this since February. But as Representative Sykes noted – as reported – the requirements set out by the Legislation are not very clear at all. Not surprisingly, I believe the Board’s positions on change are neither “few” nor “weak.” Moreover, I believe they hold promise for action, in time. Our objective is to keep the conversation moving forward. This appears to be very different from Mr. Tapley’s objective. In truth, I don’t really know what Mr. Tapley’s objective is, but I know he does a serious disservice to the readers of The Phoenix and to the citizens of Maine when he is allowed to report in so shoddy and biased a way. And it’s not, apparently, just his reporting. Rated by students on the site, his work at Kennebec Valley Community College, where he has taught in the English Department, has only three scores posted, from three different years – but all “poor quality.” The most recent (2008) comment reads, “Worst teacher I ever had!” I’m sure there are other opinions, some of them possibly even positive, but in the style of Mr. Tapley, I leave that to the readers to figure out. Jon Wilson, Chairman
The Maine State Prison Board of Visitors

By jonwme on 08/14/2009 at 6:18:48

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