February 23, 2013

Trouble behind Maine's prison bars

A fired warden. A prison captain charged with assault. And some say the Maine State Prison's problems are much larger.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. 2/23/13 to clarify Judy Garvey's opinion of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte work.

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The arrest this week of a prison captain and last month's dismissal of the prison warden are indicative of larger problems, say people who are familiar with the workings of the Maine State Prison in Warren, ME.

AP

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Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has brought in new people in an effort to change the culture, but some say Ponte is part of the problem.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

 

The arrest this week of a captain at the Maine State Prison who allegedly assaulted an inmate and last month's dismissal of the prison warden are indicative of larger problems, say people who are familiar with the workings of the facility in Warren.

Current and former employees, advocates for inmates and even prisoners say the culture at the prison is toxic. Guards are afraid to do their jobs. Inmates are concerned about treatment that is more punitive than rehabilitative. The number of incidents involving prisoners, including assaults, has increased dramatically in the last two months.

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has brought in new people in an effort to change the culture, but some say Ponte is part of the problem.

"No one wants to work in corrections," said Jim Mackie, who represents the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that includes prison workers. "If (Ponte) is not firing them, they are quitting. Our feeling is that he's trying to collapse the system."

Two former employees have filed complaints claiming they were dismissed for expressing concerns about what they saw in the prison.

James O'Farrell, whose position as deputy warden was eliminated in 2011, filed a lawsuit last month in which he claims that understaffing led directly to the killing of an inmate in May 2011.

Lloyd Millett reportedly was beaten to death by another inmate, Franklin Higgins, in the prison's woodshop. Higgins is scheduled to stand trial for murder next month.

O'Farrell said Warden Patricia Barnhart told him at one point to stop complaining to Ponte or his job might be at risk. Months later, O'Farrell's job was eliminated.

"I don't want to be the guy that saw and heard all these things and never did anything," he said in an interview.

The prison now has 825 prisoners and a staff of 410, including guards and other staffers such as social workers.

According to information provided to the Portland Press Herald in response to a Freedom of Access request, the number of inmates who were disciplined increased significantly in the last two months.

In December, 119 disciplinary actions were reported, ranging from assault and self-injuries to drug or weapon seizures. In January, there were 152 infractions. The monthly average is about 75, according to the department.

In both January and December, the number of assaults by inmates on inmates was above average, as was the number of cases of self-abuse.

Ponte, who was appointed two years ago by Gov. Paul LePage, is a reform-minded leader with a background in private, for-profit prisons. He has been aggressive in making changes and has been lauded by the governor, among others, for finding budget efficiencies in his department.

Ponte dismissed Barnhart on Jan. 10 for failing to do enough to change things in her three years as warden. She was replaced by Rodney Bouffard, who, like Ponte, has a history of reform. He helped to turn around the former Augusta Mental Health Institute and did the same at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

"We've done an assessment and have come up with some things that need to change," Bouffard said. "With change, people get nervous. I would be surprised if they weren't. But talk to them in a year and I guarantee they will feel better."

Mackie, however, said Ponte's focus on the bottom line is creating problems that he is either ignoring or not taking seriously.

He said Ponte rarely allows overtime, and that has created staffing shortfalls, dangerous working conditions and an increase in incidents at the prison.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

Patricia  Barnhart, Maine State Prison
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Patricia Barnhart, who was fired a prison warden last month.

AP

  


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