Are Maine prisons out of control?

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Maine, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, appears to be losing to suspicious death a disproportionate number of prisoners from within its segregation facilities.

This seems somewhat odd in view of the concerted effort the Department of Corrections undertook over the past month to defend itself against legislative bill LD1611, an initiative intended to put reasonable restraints on the use and abuse of segregation within Maine’s prisons.

Under the time-worn idiom of circling the wagons, the department pulled out all the stops in opposing the bill, succeeding in reducing it down to a resolve to study itself. A highly respected captain at the Maine State Prison broke down sobbing at the hearing, accusing the sponsors of the bill of insulting the good people in corrections, insisting that he had never maced anyone.

That theme was picked up by Rep. Richard Sykes , R-Harrison, who was heard on the House floor accusing supporters of the bill of insulting those good people at the prisons who “… put their lives on the line every day” — a debatable premise.

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Not only did the department call on scores of employees to testify against the bill, they corralled numerous others to wear protest stickers and lobby in the halls of the State House, an uncomfortable picture of activities for our state employees.

On the day the House was first expected to debate the bill, employees were reportedly ordered to put on the stickers and report to the second floor of the Capitol building, presumably taking the treasured “comp time” to avoid the lobbying restrictions imposed on government employees.

Yet, three people have died within the past year, either within segregation or barely out of segregation.

First, Sheldon Weinstein — Jewish, brilliant, wheelchair bound and a dropout from Boston University Medical School – died of a ruptured spleen April 24, 2009 — about 2 hours after I had requested that he be given toilet paper. His death is reported to have been the result of an assault received four days earlier.

Then Victor Valdez, segregated under suspicious circumstances, was rushed from segregation to the infirmary at the Maine State Prison and was reported to have died there.

Now comes the case of George Magee at the Androscoggin County Jail, who hanged himself over the weekend in a segregation cell in full view of security. He was placed there under observation for refusing his medicine. Yet, he is reported to have hanged himself with pieces of ripped bed sheets.

What is going on here? If you are not safe in segregation, where can you be safe within a prison?

Two of these prisoners — Weinstein and Magee — were convicted sex offenders. Weinstein had confessed to molesting a family member, and Magee had violated the terms of his probation by living with a woman with minor children.

Let me share with you what I believe is going on here.

As a chaplain, I became instrumental in breaking up a loosely-held gang in the medium custody unit at the Maine State Prison that called itself the “Rat and Skinner Patrol.” “Skinner” is the pejorative term for a sex offender, commonly beaten within the prison, while “Rat” is the term for a beaten prisoner who informs on those who beat him (or a chaplain who tells what is going on there).

Traditionally, beaten “Skinners” were placed in segregation for interminable periods of time, while the perpetrators, if caught, were put into the “hole” for 5 to10 days.

During the last legislative session, the Maine Department of Corrections successfully lobbied to place the 15 county jails (or corrections institutions) under its limited jurisdiction in order to institute uniform compliance with accepted corrections standards. This jurisdiction was placed under the authority of the distinguished Board of Corrections, itself under the intense scrutiny and able assistance of the department.

One is reminded of the Dutch legend of Hans Brinker, who put his finger in a dike to prevent a flood, only to place himself in grave peril.

The Department of Corrections has a favorite phrase to deflect criticism: “We are operating within nationally accepted standards.”

In talking with my brother in Rhode Island, a psychologist with a practice counseling sex offenders in prison systems there and Massachusetts, he did not know of one case of a sex-offender beating during the past 20 or more years of his practice.

Yet, the bias against sex offenders within the guard culture in the prison and jail system in Maine is notorious. Accepted practice in Maine for all too many guards is to look the other way, or even to tacitly promote abuse of certain prisoners under their protection.

That is the systemic cultural miasma that the department is desperately trying to fix before it gets out of control.

I have news for these good people. It may already be out of control.

Transparency and accountability are the two accepted standards that will repair the damage, albeit not for Weinstein, Valdez and Magee, or those who loved them.

Stan Moody of Manchester is a former Maine state representative and, most recently, a chaplain at the Maine State Prison in Warren. He is pastor of the Meeting House Church in Manchester and has been a frequent speaker on human rights issues at conferences around the nation.

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