The bill should be killed, not the inmates

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Every once in a while, an inmate escapes from a Maine jail.

Escape is a felony in Maine, and if the escapee is convicted the punishment can be up to 5 years in jail and $5,000 in fines. If a weapon is used in the escape, the penalties double.

Such a steep sentence is rarely, if ever imposed, and escapees are generally sentenced to months rather than years in jail.

A bill now before the Legislature would have them — potentially — sentenced to death.

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OK, the bill is not quite that raw, but it would allow medium- and minimum-security inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham to be killed during an escape.

As written, LD 1588 would expand the authority that corrections officers and police officers now have only at the Maine State Prison in Warren — the state’s sole maximum-security facility — to the MCC, and allow officers there to shoot to kill if considered necessary to prevent an escape.

There are six adult correctional facilities in Maine, so why change things just in Windham?

In her testimony before the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety last month, Jody Breton, the associate commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections, didn’t say exactly why.

This bill is a DOC bill, but the offered testimony didn’t address how often inmates escape in lesser-security institutions and, if they do, how dangerous they may be to the community. And, the testimony didn’t address how dangerous inmates have been or may be when confronted by officers during an escape, which might justify the use of deadly force.

In fact, Breton’s point was that the MCC houses some inmates requiring armed supervision. Also, the MCC and Maine State Prison are the “only two DOC adult correctional facilities with secure perimeters, and DOC believes that any prisoner trying to escape from either facility is dangerous.” Because of that, their argument goes, the use of deadly force should be permitted at both facilities.

Why?

Windham is a medium/minimum security facility that houses men and women, most of whom are not violent criminals. There are some, to be sure, but the majority of the population is considered redeemable. In fact, Windham’s mission is to educate and rehabilitate prisoners “to accept increasing levels of personal responsibility for their conduct.”

It’s also a facility where inmates have escaped, and always been returned without incident.

Take career criminal and frequent escapee Troy Landis, for example.

In 1987, he escaped from the Maine Youth Center in South Portland when he was 17 years old. He was free for two weeks before he was recaptured, and was sentenced to serve a year in prison with all but 90 days suspended.

In 1990, Landis — who was being held on out-of-state burglary warrants — escaped from the Oxford County Jail, wiggling through an unhinged window that was being repaired in a locked cell. He was free for 41 minutes before being taken back into custody.

Then, while serving a nine-month sentence at Windham in 1996, Landis escaped and was gone for seven months before being recaptured in Arizona. He was sentenced to serve 10 months in jail.

Had a corrections officer seen him walking off, should he have been shot?

If Maine is willing to shoot to kill escaping inmates at Windham, what about those escaping from less secure jails? What about county jails? Or those who walk away from work release sites or pre-release centers where they may be living while serving the tail end of a sentence that may have started at Windham?

Just before 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, John Michaud, 46, of Auburn walked away from the Downeast Correctional Facility, a minimum security jail in Machiasport.

He was there to serve a two-year sentence for multiple counts of burglary and theft, and was originally ordered to serve that time at the Windham Correctional Center. He was moved to Machiasport in September.

By noon Thursday, he was captured in Lewiston without incident.

Michaud, who has a four-year history of theft, drug possession and burglary, has never committed a crime of violence. So, if he had continued to serve his time at Windham when he got the urge to escape, would we — as a society — be justified in killing him?

Deadly force may be warranted at the state prison, where Maine’s most violent offenders are housed, and the U.S. Supreme Court certainly permits states to take this approach with all inmates, but is Maine ready to kill burglars? Particularly when they’re housed at less secure prisons because they’re seen as less dangerous?

Criminal Justice Committee member Rep. Tim Marks, D-Pittston, raised appropriate alarm during the public hearing on this bill: “I don’t want to be shooting somebody who’s going over the fence when he was in there for check kiting or something like that.”

During the hearing, one lawmaker sarcastically suggested that perhaps the most dangerous inmates could be given overalls with a bull’s-eye on the back to make those decisions easy. Dark humor, and all.

Again, we have to ask why?

There have certainly been prison escapes in Maine over the years, but on those rare occasions, the inmates have been recaptured without incident and without harm to the community.

The same cannot be said about forensic clients who have escaped from Riverview Psychiatric Center.

Donald Beauchene, who is now confined to Riverview, was found not guilty of murder by reason of mental disease or defect in 1970 and escaped from Riverview (formerly AMHI) twice. During the second escape, he raped a woman in New York and was sentenced to serve 15 years there. He returned to Riverview in 1998 and was later accused of sexually assaulting a female patient, but was never prosecuted.

The man is 70 years old and a lifetime registrant on the Sex Offender Registry. He has a history of escape and has proven dangerous when successful.

We’re not suggesting that clients who escape from Riverview should be shot, but it’s worth pointing out that there is proven danger when that happens. That has not been the case with escapees from Maine’s prisons, which means the bill now being considered is, quite literally, an act of overkill.

It is the bill that should die, not the inmates.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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