Bouffard, the new Maine State Prison boss, has a mental-health-treatment background, having run the Augusta Mental Health Institute (now Riverview Psychiatric Center) and the now-closed Pineland Center for the developmentally disabled.
His boss, Ponte, has become nationally known for dramatically reducing solitary confinement, in which many mentally ill prisoners had been placed. Ponte has accomplished other reforms, including reducing the frequency that probation violations send people back to prison, thereby helping stabilize what had been an ever-growing and ever-more-expensive prison population. He also has reduced guard overtime expenses by millions of dollars a year.
Speaking of Ponte's reforms at the Criminal Justice Committee meeting, its Senate chairman, Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat, remarked, "It's a big gamble the commissioner has taken on," alluding to possible public reaction if an inmate or former inmate who was treated less strictly commits a heinous crime.
But, Gerzofsky said, "The alternative is warehousing, and that does nobody any good."
"And it's expensive," Ponte interjected.
Senator Gary Plummer, the committee's lead Republican, said the state needs to extend "the good things we've done with juveniles to another population" in the prison system.
Ponte and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition have long pushed for exactly that. In an email, MPAC's Jim Bergin said he hoped new leadership at the prison "will facilitate continued change from an outmoded punitive-based means of controlling inmates to an incentive-based approach."
Bergin saw Barnhart's firing as confirmation that "the lack of leadership at the top in the prison created an atmosphere where certain staff have been enabled to disregard policy and even instigate disruption as a means of discrediting the commissioner and his improvements."
Indeed, veteran correctional officers have complained about Ponte's new approaches to dealing with prisoners — to the point that Barnhart, who was appointed by Commissioner Martin Magnusson in 2009, was, after her firing, vigorously defended in the daily press by a guard union official.