Criminal Justice Reform - Timely and Necessary

Alysia's picture

Yesterday, there was an interim meeting of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee of the legislature.  The Committee listened to presentations from various bodies involved in reforming and improving Maine's corrections system.  In the morning, the Board of Corrections, which is responsible for integrating State Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities with County correctional facilities, presented an update of the progress on One Maine One System. 

Some things generated pride and optimism - such as the mission change in Waldo from a 72-hour hold facility, to a pre-release center.  The center is designed to take inmates with low safety-risk, but high risk of re-offense and provide them with quality services to reduce recidivism.  There was also excitement about the increased use and availability of video arraignments. 

Other information, however, raised concern about the state of Maine Corrections and the commitment of some within the state to work speedily towards resolution of serious identified problems.

The governor's office, for example, still has yet to fill one of the slots on the Board of Corrections – a slot that has been open since the Board began its duties last summer and a slot which has since been designated as reserved for someone with mental health expertise.  During  yesterday’s presentation, the Board of Visitors for the Maine State Prison, a facility which has been singled out for problems, also reported that their mental-health-background was open.   According to their chair, Jon Wilson, this is the second time this particular slot had been left unfilled for an extended period of time. 

The similar experiences and extended timeframes of the openings suggest that filling these positions has not been a priority of the Governor's office and that is tragic.  The thought and discussion that goes into developing these Boards' decisions and recommendations would benefit greatly from the voice of someone with mental health expertise.  Every law enforcement and corrections officer in the state acknowledges the reality behind that need, which is that prisons and jails are the largest mental health providers in the state - with estimates of mental illness among inmates ranging from 65-85%.  

It only makes sense that the steps taken to improve systems and outcomes for prisoners should be made with direct input from at least one individual with a mental health background.  I mean, isn't recognition of that need the whole reason those seats were designated in the first place?  

The Committee also reviewed the Department of Corrections' progress addressing the problems outlined in the OPEGA (the Office of Program Evaluation & Government Accountability) June 2009 report, "Maine State Prison Management Issues --Organizational Culture and Weaknesses in Reporting Avenues Are Likely Inhibiting Reporting and Action on Employee Concerns."  From Commissioner Marty Magnusson’s presentation, little concrete progress has been made to resolve the issues outlined in the report, including:

  • Intimidation of, and retaliation against, individuals attempting to raise concerns – or behaviors that staff perceive as intimidation or retaliation.
  • Behaviors that staff or prisoners experience or perceive as harassment and discrimination of various forms.
  • A distrust and/or lack of respect for management as a whole, or of certain individuals within the chain of command, that appears to be fed, at least in part, by staff perceptions that a strong “good old boy” network exists.
  • Reluctance or actual failure to report situations that are personally concerning to staff, appear unethical, or that otherwise expose the State to unnecessary risks and liabilities.

The changes sought in the OPEGA and Board of Visitors reports are crucial to ensuring that the eighth, fourteenth, and first amendments rights of prisoners are protected.  They are also key to providing corrections staff with a work environment that supports ethical, non-discriminatory behavior.  Too often in these issue areas crises happen and the great plans for reform get pushed to the side.  Commissioner Magnusson suggested at yesterday’s meeting that the recent death of Sheldon Weinstein was one such crisis.  What is feared is that the very cultural problems outlined in the OPEGA and Board of Visitors reports contributed to Weinstein's death, making it clear that they should be prioritized, rather than pushed to aside. 

Here’s hoping that the Committee keeps the spotlight turned on high.  

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