Wilson employs a couple of mantras to explain the board’s activities: “listening” and “responsibility without authority.” These words reflect his view of the board’s role.
He says board members spend much of their time listening to concerns of inmates, guards, and the employees running the prison’s programs. These concerns are then taken to prison management.
Wilson says Warden Jeffrey Merrill “looks carefully” at the concerns, but for reform Merrill “doesn’t get all the support he needs from the Legislature.” Problems at the prison have a lot to do with an insufficient budget, Wilson believes. (Merrill declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Wilson’s other mantra, “responsibility without authority,” defines in his mind the Board of Visitors limits. It’s not a governing board, but an advisory group, he says. There is no staff, and members receive no pay.
He has worked to have the group meet more regularly (it meets now about eight times a year), he says, and this year he partially opened two meetings to the public. He is aware of the state’s Freedom of Access law, but claims security and confidentiality concerns restrict how much the deliberations can be public.
Although Wilson appears careful to protect his relationship with prison authorities, he can be sharply critical of the prison. The institution is not run correctly, he says. “I think it needs help. . . . There are a lot of issues that need work.”
Nobody appreciates the overworked, underpaid guards in this understaffed, high-turnover institution, he says. There’s not enough money “to run that prison the way it was designed to run.” Among the often-inexperienced guards the stress, he says, is “like working in a war zone.”
The 100-man, solitary-confinement Supermax or Special Management Unit he sees as a special problem. It’s horrible to mix impulsive and mentally ill inmates there, he says. But the state is “not willing to fund the alternative,” a major mental-health facility for prisoners.
Also horrible, he says, is the high recidivism or the return to crime by prisoners who have served their sentences: “It’s a failure rate. The public needs to understand the system is not working.”
He keeps coming back to the fact that the Legislature doesn’t pay attention to the prison. And this is because “most people” — voters — “don’t want to look at it.” Summing up, he sees the penal system as “a mess,” locally and nationally,
Yet his criticism doesn’t get translated into action. “We don’t lobby,” he says flatly. Sometimes his words seem fatalistic: “It’s a huge, huge ship to turn.”
When he is asked about the prison’s liability in the April death of wheelchair-bound sex offender Sheldon Weinstein, a murder apparently committed by inmates but with possible responsibility on the part of prison staff, Wilson replies in a similar fatalistic manner that prison murders are inevitable: “If somebody wants to hurt somebody, they can. . . . I don’t think the prison is responsible.”
So who is responsible for the bad things that take place in a state institution? In addition to believing that the board doesn’t have authority, it would appear that Wilson actually doesn’t believe the board has much responsibility, either.