Although LD 690, A BILL TO MAKE IT EASIER FOR "EXILED" PRISONERS TO RETURN TO MAINE, was killed May 6 by the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee, political activist Ron Huber, who had pushed it, declared "victory in Augusta" on his Facebook page.
The bill required the Corrections commissioner to get a court order before shipping inmates out of state under an inmate-trading agreement, and it established a way prisoners could petition to return. The new commissioner, Joseph Ponte, working with Huber and volunteer lawyers, has written rules accomplishing many of the bill's objectives, though transfers would still be at his discretion.
Prisoners sent away have little contact with family and friends, which is important in rehabilitation. Twenty-eight are outside Maine now, including Deane Brown, the whistleblower who was a key source in the Phoenix's series on prisoner abuse. He was sent away for reporting the abuse.
Also on May 6, the committee "carried over" until the 2012 legislative session LD 1095, ENCOURAGING A PRIVATE PRISON IN MAINE. The bill not only had opposition from unions, church groups, and civil libertarians, it was a moving target. Its sponsor, Senator Doug Thomas (R-Piscataquis), who wants to encourage Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to build a prison in Milo, kept submitting different versions. The latest included allowing Maine prisoners to be put in private prisons within or outside Maine. (See "NAACP, Others Bristle After GOP Senator Censors Anti-Private-Prison Testimony," by Lance Tapley, May 6.)
Despite the postponement, the committee generally appears supportive of sending prisoners to a corporate prison in Maine or elsewhere — and of the construction in Maine of a corporate prison for federal or other states' inmates. CCA lobbyist and former GOP legislative leader Josh Tardy said the state budget crunch might persuade legislators they would save money by sending inmates to a CCA lockup. Prisoner exports are made more likely because LD 1095 may not be needed. According to state law librarians, no law or regulation prohibits putting prisoners in a private prison in Maine or elsewhere. "Anything can happen" at the session's end, Tardy observed.
Republican Governor Paul LePage has signedLD 168, REQUIRING A STATE MEDICAL EXAMINER TO CONDUCT "AN EXAMINATION AND INQUEST" AFTER A PRISONER DIES and decide if an autopsy is needed. Currently, a prison or hospital doctor can certify an inmate died of natural causes.
Activists proposed the bill after Maine State Prison inmate Victor Valdez died in suspicious circumstances in 2009. His body was cremated without a medical examiner's inspection or autopsy. (See "A Prison Obituary," by Lance Tapley, July 28, 2010.)
The Criminal Justice Committee endorsed LD 685, ENCOURAGING INMATE GARDENING AND FARMING TO PRODUCE FOOD FOR THE PRISONS. At Corrections' request, legislators put into the bill permission to mine gravel on prison land to pay for ramping up agriculture. Maine prisons already do some farming. In 2010 the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren produced 208,000 pounds of potatoes and 12,000 pounds of zucchini, among other crops. Nancy Oden, the farmer-activist who originated the bill, wanted prisoners not to go "into hunter-gatherer mode when they get out," perhaps becoming farmers instead of reverting to criminal foraging. The bill now goes to the full Legislature.
On May 12 the committee will hold hearings on measures to REFORM THE TREATMENT OF PRISONERS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT (LD 1163) and RE-ESTABLISH PAROLE (LD 1500).