The law governing the board — which gives it broad powers to inspect the prison, review its management, and make recommendations in an annual report — specifically says the group is subject to the state’s Freedom of Access law, which obliges meetings to be public except for such things as personnel and litigation discussions and establishes a strict protocol for going into nonpublic sessions.

But chairman Wilson admits the board has conducted most of its meetings with the public excluded. The most recent, on July 15 in Augusta, had no advertised public notice, and previous to it Wilson told this reporter it was closed. (He later admitted there should have been public notice.)

The annual reports are supposed to be distributed to the prison warden, the corrections commissioner, and the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, but since they hadn’t been in years it’s no wonder that Senator Earl McCormick, a West Gardiner Republican who served on the Criminal Justice Committee in the last Legislature, says, “I certainly haven’t heard that they’ve done a lot. I don’t recall they ever came before us.”

Impressions of the board’s invisibility and ineffectualness run deep.

“I’ve always wondered what they are supposed to do,” says Zachary Heiden, the staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, who as part of his job follows corrections issues.

Likewise: “I have no idea what it does,” says Sue Rudalevidge, a former Maine Council of Churches advocate for better treatment of prisoners.

This mental picture of the board goes back a ways.

Speaking about his extensive activism for prisoner rights in the 1970s and 1980s, Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Paul Thibeault, of Machias, says the board was “useless.” They were a “figurehead” group, he says.

In the present day, the board is “toothless,” says Ira Scheer, a former president of the prison’s guards union who no longer works for the state: “I’ve never seen anything done” by the board.

Summing up a common perception, Barbara Pierce Parker, a prisoner-rights activist, says board members “haven’t challenged” the Department of Corrections.

Jon Wilson: The prison is terrible, but . . .
Board chairman Wilson paints a different picture, although it vividly reveals the board’s intimacy with the Department of Corrections.

Wilson, 63, is energetic and reflective. Wooden Boat, a magazine he founded in the 1970s, has long thrived. He had an unsuccessful experience, however, with an inspirational magazine called Hope. He closed it down in 2004, but he wrote articles for Hope about people who brought together convicted criminals and victims — or, in the case of murderers, the victims’ survivors — so the prisoners could face deeply what they had done. The work appealed to Wilson because, he says, he is “deeply angered” by abuse of authority, including “criminal attempts to control others.”

In 2001, the year then-governor Angus King appointed him to his first three-year term on the visitors board, Wilson founded a nonprofit, JUST Alternatives, through which he conducts training sessions in “victim-offender dialogue” at prisons around the country. Despite his victim-rights efforts, Wilson says, “I work respectfully with offenders,” and “I am passionately oriented toward human and individual rights.” He became the visitors board chairman in 2005.

< prev  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |   next >
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Health and Fitness, John Atwood,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   LOCKING UP THE MENTALLY ILL  |  April 03, 2014
    The merger of the prison and mental-health systems continues
    The conference was held in March despite the risk of a snowstorm because its organizers wanted “to reach the Legislature while it’s in session,” co-coordinator Fred Horch said.
  •   ANATOMY OF A RIP-OFF, PART II  |  March 06, 2014
    Imagine if state government gave out millions of dollars a year to fat-cat financiers, big banks,  and speculative ventures without monitoring how the money is spent — basically, giving it to whoever walks in the door as long as they flash a few credentials.
  •   ANATOMY OF A TAXPAYER RIP-OFF  |  February 19, 2014
    To try to restore several hundred mill jobs to the historic paper-making North Country towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket, Maine’s politicians, in a bipartisan manner, have given away and are planning to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to various corporate interests, including big, out-of-state banks.
  •   NO DEATH PENALTY FOR MAINE PRISONER  |  February 12, 2014
    In 2008, within a supposedly high-security prison in the giant federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado, Gary Watland, a “boarder” from Maine, murdered another inmate, white supremacist Mark Baker.

 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY