Tom Ewell: It’s the tradition
Wilson’s attitude is shared by a former member of the Board of Visitors, Tom Ewell. While he, too, sees the prison as a troubled place, he believes the board is limited in what it can do to correct the problems. For 19 years the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, Ewell, 66, retired in 2006, left the prison board after three years, and moved to Washington state. Like Wilson, he emphasizes the board’s role in “listening,” in being an intermediary. Although he says he kept “pushing for more active participation” of the board in prison affairs — and describes meeting resistance in “a world of distrust and secrecy” — he admits that he and the board didn’t do much as advocates for change.
Like Wilson, he can’t name a reform the board brought about, though he says he unsuccessfully tried to reduce the high phone charges that Corrections demands prisoners and their families pay for inmate calls. “We were more diplomatic than adversarial” vis-à-vis the prison administration, he says.
He agrees state law “would have allowed a more adversarial role,” but the group works “from the inside.” That is the tradition: The board is not expected to be activist. He feels one of his accomplishments was obtaining the trust of commissioner Magnusson and prison staff: “I gave them the benefit of the doubt.”
When he was on the board, he says, the idea of public meetings “never even occurred to us.” Neither did the idea of annual reports with recommendations to the Legislature. He characterizes the attitude of the assistant attorney general who advises Corrections and the board, Diane Sleek, as “give [the public] the least amount of information,” calling her “the bulldog of the whole system.”
Blunt and thoughtful, Ewell, like Wilson, can be sharply critical of the prison.
Supermax solitary confinement he calls “inhumane” and “just cruel.” He expresses satisfaction that, as a Maine Council of Churches lobbyist, he helped stop Corrections from building a much larger Supermax back in the late 1980s.
As for the vast number of mentally ill people in prison, he expresses sympathy with prison staff: “They have mentally ill people thrown at them. What can they do?”
Like Wilson, he appears to throw up his hands at possibilities for significant reform.
Why so unaccountable and ineffectual?
Perhaps there is value in the limited role of “listening” that Ewell and Wilson see for the Board of Visitors. But if Wilson is personally angered by abuse of authority and passionately oriented toward human rights, as he claims, why hasn’t he led the board to correct the human-rights abuses against inmates that responsible organizations believe take place regularly at the Maine State Prison? Why haven’t he and other board members advocated before the Legislature for less abusive treatment of the guards — fuller staffing and better pay, supervision, and working conditions? Why has the board largely kept its activities secret? Wilson and Ewell don’t have answers to these questions except this is way things have been done.
But Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Paul Thibeault has an answer: Board members “feel like they’re part of Corrections instead of representing the public.”
In other words, the Board of Visitors has been co-opted.
“You have to open yourself to civilian input,” says Jamie Bissonette, an American Friends Service Committee prison activist, speaking of the board’s secrecy. Otherwise, “it’s just a chat with the warden.”
And while the chat goes on, the abuse continues.
Lance Tapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.