In 2011 reform-minded Commissioner Joseph Ponte of the Maine Department of Corrections set up a formal process — apparently, rare in the United States — for prisoners transferred to out-of-state prison systems to apply to come home.
Now, Deane Brown, 48, the prisoner who blew the whistle in 2005 on the Maine State Prison's abusive long-term solitary confinement of inmates in its "supermax" unit, has applied to return from the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
His inside information — and his organizing of other prisoners to speak out — launched the Phoenix's long-running series on prisoner mistreatment and contributed to the nation's rethinking of widespread prisoner isolation, a practice medical experts, human-rights groups, and the United Nations increasingly call a form of torture.
As Brown's recompense, Maine transferred him in 2006, in a prisoner exchange, to Maryland's supermax. In Brown's court battle to return to Maine, which he lost, prison officials admitted his contacts with the press were a reason he was sent away.
Brown spent almost three years in isolation cells in Maryland prisons. He was transferred in 2010 to the New Jersey prison's supermax, where he spent four months before being released into its general population after a volunteer New Jersey prisoner-rights attorney, Jean Ross, began representing him.
Brown wrote to Ponte in August:
"I receive no rehabilitation in New Jersey, and the conditions here are very bad. Because of the bad medical care, my health and even my life are at risk. I need to return to Maine, where I still have people in the community who know me and have helped me in the past. I do not have a history of violence, and I would not present any problem to the Maine prison system."
In a given month around 20 Maine prisoners are outside the state. The reasons Corrections gives for sending prisoners away vary from a penchant for violence to protection from violence. Some inmates ask to be transferred to be nearer family members.
The department says seven prisoners applied to return after the new policy went into effect; four are now back in Maine. The reasons given for not being allowed back include a history of escape attempts and of being an informant — the latter a risky occupation in prison.
Although Maine's policy says the commissioner retains "complete discretion" on transferring prisoners, it sets up a committee to review requests to return or requests by wardens to ship prisoners out of state, and it establishes criteria for transfers. Previously, the process was arbitrary in the extreme. (The new policy is at http://tinyurl.com/MainePrisonRightOfReturn.)
Alan Mills, a Chicago lawyer and a prison reformer for 33 years, says most states don't have an explicit policy allowing prisoners to apply to go home. Illinois "has no policy at all," he says.
Another longtime reformer, Bonnie Kerness, speaking from her American Friends Service Committee office in Newark, says New Jersey's policy also isn't written. After a prisoner sends a letter, officials discuss the case. She notes, "It's always going to be an exchange," with states effectively swapping prisoners under the interstate compacts governing state-to-state prisoner transfers.
Judy Plummer, spokesperson for Maine's department, says inmate exchanges are somewhat informal — "sometimes there's a trade" when a prisoner is transferred, and sometimes there isn't.