Prison whistleblower to return to Maine

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  December 26, 2012

Maine corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has notified Deane Brown, the inmate whistleblower who in 2005 was the original source for the Phoenix's lengthy series on prison abuse, that he will be allowed to return to Maine.

In 2006, Brown, 48, was shipped from the Maine State Prison to a harsh Maryland solitary-confinement "supermax" by Governor John Baldacci's prison administration as his reward for talking to the press. In 2010 he was transferred to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

His volunteer lawyer in New Jersey, Jean Ross, said she got the notice from Ponte on December 17.

Ross emailed: "It is to the credit of the State of Maine and the commissioner of Corrections that the process for evaluating the return of out-of-state prisoners has operated in a wise and just manner to conclude that Deane Brown, a man who has so consistently exemplified humanity and wisdom in the conduct of this stage of his life, should be returned to his home state."

"We do not have a date of return," Ponte told the Phoenix in an email, "but I don't think it should be more than 30 days away."

"Commissioner Ponte has given Deane Brown a Christmas gift that only a Corrections commissioner can give," said Ron Huber, the political activist who — spurred by Brown's exile — worked with the then-new commissioner in 2011 to establish a procedure for prisoners transferred out of state to petition to return.

"It makes sense if an inmate can do well in another system, he should be able to do well here," Ponte said. "Bringing these inmates back is an opportunity for them to show they can be responsible here in Maine."

In the fall of 2005 Huber had put the Phoenix in touch with Brown after he had begun calling Huber's radio program on WRFR, a nonprofit Rockland station. Brown complained about conditions in the prison's solitary-confinement Special Management Unit in which he had been placed for having several unauthorized tools in his cell.

Ponte's decision is "highly gratifying news, and shows that even the Department of Corrections can show compassion," said M.D. Harmon, a Portland Press Herald conservative columnist who had supported Brown's return.

One of the nation's leading prison-reform activists, Bonnie Kerness, of Newark, New Jersey, who connected attorney Ross with Brown, said she was elated to hear that Brown will be going back to Maine, commenting: "The practice of 'exiling' people in prison to other states is unnecessarily cruel, like so much else that goes on in U.S. prisons."

Inmates are sent to other states' penal institutions for a variety of reasons, including danger from other prisoners, but also as punishment.

As part of the procedure to decide whether prisoners should return, the Warren prison warden, Patricia Barnhart — who was not at the prison when Brown was shipped out — was required to make a recommendation. She wrote that Brown "is an inmate leader and routinely champions prisoner complaints and causes," adding: "Sometimes he is an administrative burden."

But, she said, "his behavior is not significantly different from many other prisoners," and she accepted his return. Brown is serving 59 years for a string of burglaries in the 1990s.

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