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.

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