While at the Department of Corrections, former Commissioner Joseph Ponte reversed MDOC’s longstanding media philosophy that had been: “If we’re not in the news, that’s good news.”
As spokesman for the MDOC, Commissioner Ponte believed the more Maine knows about and understands the Department of Corrections, the better. In March 2013, I was the first person hired solely for MDOC communications and public relations. Specifically, Ponte hired me to:
• Serve as communications director;
• Build MDOC’s social media presence;
• Promote public understanding of MDOC’s mission/goals; and
• Publicize positive MDOC employees/programs.
One associate commissioner asked during my job interview, “How are you going to do that? We’re the Department of Corrections. Nobody cares about us.”
Taken aback, silent for a moment, I answered, “We have to make them care. We have to humanize the department.”
Getting to know corrections to write stories about corrections was troubling and rewarding. Prisons are, for the most part, frightening, sad places. Once inside, heavy steel bar doors airlock behind you with a loud, sharp clang. There is no getting out unless someone lets you out. I never got used to that sound or that helpless feeling.
The good part was meeting dedicated department staff and administrator colleagues, correctional officers, care and treatment workers, probation officers, office workers, wardens, librarians and teachers. Maine prisons are self-contained, like small cities, and some prisoners I met were remarkable, too.
Let me share two public relations success stories. One from inside MDOC, one from outside.
Maine photographer Trent Bell, saddened by his good friend sent to a New York prison for a long stretch, wrote asking permission to do a project at Maine State Prison. That prison — Maine’s maximum-security prison — was described by Warden Rodney Bouffard as home to “900 of the most dangerous people in Maine.”
Ponte gave Trent permission for the project, and the photographer invited prisoners to hand write, on one side of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, a letter from their current selves to themselves as younger men. And, Trent planned to then shoot photo portraits of each participating prisoner. About a dozen prisoners took part, and the letters contained hard words of advice to young men about going to school, avoiding drugs, staying out of trouble, and sparing their victims and families unnecessary pain.
Trent took their letters and portraits and created a powerful photo art exhibit, with letters serving as the background of large-scale photos of each prisoner who wrote a message for “The Reflect Project: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves.” The project attracted international recognition, and was on display in the visitors’ room at the prison among other places, including art galleries in Maine and out of state.
The inside success story? Prisoners who volunteer to train as hospice workers, to administer to dying prisoners and who formed their “Sounds of Comfort” band.
The band’s original music is geared toward soothing hospice patients and families.
MDOC, along with the Maine Hospice Council, professionally recorded “Sounds of Comfort” inside the prison chapel, produced a music CD and launched a sell-out concert in the prison visitors’ room. That was the first time the public had been inside the prison for a concert.
All proceeds from CD sales help fund the 14-year-old prison hospice program.
Some other MDOC success stories told since March 2013:
• Craig Smith saving many thousands of tax dollars with his prisoner welding class at Downeast Correctional Facility;
• a horse therapy program offered to Southern Maine Re-Entry Center adult female prisoners;
• Maine Correctional Center prisoners helping care for horses, the horse barn, and rebuilding horse fences at Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals;
• a female prisoner at Southern Maine Re-entry Center starting a creative writing class with a dozen inmates;
• prisoners from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham cleaning fire-hazard debris from 50 vacant lots in the city of Lewiston; and
• with Maine videographers, I produced MDOC recruitment videos and a documentary on the Maine prison wood products industries, from tree-cutting to selling products at the Thomaston Prison showroom.
When Ponte left in April 2014, enthusiasm for proactive MDOC stories went with him. The governor’s office prefers a quieter MDOC, and MDOC’s new commissioner does not disagree.
The thinking is: Why take a safety risk with reporters, writers and such inside Maine prisons, when nobody really cares about corrections?
The MDOC public relations/communications position that I held is gone. Proactive MDOC stories were left on the table.
It has been my experience that, given stories to care about, the public certainly cares about corrections. Corrections personnel rarely get public recognition for the tough, creative, necessary and sometimes dangerous work they do every day.
Judith Meyer, Sun Journal managing editor/days, joined me for a panel discussion at Maine State Prison during the Maine Hospice Council’s annual conference at the prison last year. Replying to a prisoner’s question about how the media cover inmate cases, Meyer spoke about covering crime stories for years basically like this: someone does wrong, they’re arrested, have a trial, are convicted, sentenced to prison.
“And as far as I knew,” Meyer said, “that was the end of their story. What I’ve learned from my visits to Maine State Prison this past year is — that’s not the end of their story. Their story continues in prison.”
Scott Fish is the former director of public relations with the Maine Department of Corrections.