At a turning point

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  February 9, 2011

In 1990 he retired from the Massachusetts system after 21 years, then worked in Rhode Island public and private prisons before taking over, in 1996, a big public jail in Union County, New Jersey. It was bedeviled by escapes, abuse of inmates by guards, and labor-management struggles.

"Ponte earned praise during short tenure," declared a headline in the Newark Star-Ledger when, after two years, he moved to Idaho, spending 18 months there as the state prisons' administrator. Ponte moved around so often, he says, because he liked challenges.

His next job was another big challenge — chief of the 2800-inmate, notoriously overcrowded and violent Shelby County Jail in Memphis.

"The inmates were running the jail," says Robert Hutton, a Memphis attorney who sued the county over jail conditions. Prisoner gangs sponsored "Thunderdome" fights among inmates, with the champion awarded a special belt. Guards regularly didn't show up for work, without consequences. Federal judges had found conditions unconstitutionally cruel.

"Everybody blamed the staff," but the problem was the management, Ponte says. Inmates appreciated his "very direct" manner, says Mark Luttrell, the sheriff elected to clean up the jail and now Shelby County's mayor. "He did an exceptional job."

The improvements released the jail from federal supervision soon after Ponte left Memphis in 2004 for Massachusetts — where his wife is a sixth-grade teacher — to finish a mid-life bachelor's degree. Then on to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation's largest private-prison company.

Ponte may have stumbled in his first CCA job, running a large jail in Panama City, Florida. After several prisoner mishaps, the county fined CCA $140,000. In 2008, CCA pulled out of its contract to operate the jail. But apparently the company didn't blame Ponte. Since then he has been a utility player at its prisons in Arizona, Mississippi, and now Nevada, where he started up a prison housing federal inmates.

If Ponte doesn't look at Maine as a quiet, pre-retirement stop, the troubled Maine State Prison and the rest of the correctional system could face a shake-up. Moody calls Ponte a "turnaround specialist."

But what about those bigger possible reforms?

Ponte appears to know what needs to be done. "There a great deal of evidence about what works," he says. He cites studies by the National Institute of Corrections, a Department of Justice think tank. He touts his national experience and contacts: "If it works in one system, it'll work in another."

He mentions the state of Mississippi's reduction of its supermax population. (By 90 percent, through expanding mental-health, recreation, and educational programs.) Ponte makes the point that isolation is more expensive than the regular side of the prison. It's also "expensive to defend lawsuits," he adds. Mississippi's reforms occurred after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state over supermax conditions.

A related issue is the large number of mentally ill people locked up. "The seriously mentally ill shouldn't be in prison," LePage said flatly at the press conference announcing Ponte's nomination.

But here's the catch: "It's expensive to incarcerate, and it's expensive to treat [mentally ill people] in the community," Ponte observes. Even though reforms in the long run can reduce corrections costs, a Republican governor and Legislature promising to cut government expenditures and not raise taxes may have difficulty providing more money for community mental-health services — or for any fundamental reform affecting prisoners. Ponte says he'll try to show that "if we spend $1 million we'll have $10 million in savings."

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