When Joseph Ponte was told that Maine's longtime corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson had once informed the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee, after a dramatic hostage-taking, that there were "probably 300 inmates right now with a weapon in their hand" — and that nobody at the committee meeting seemed disturbed by this information — Ponte's reaction was "I would be extremely perturbed by that."
Ponte says he wasn't told by Governor Paul LePage that he was nominated to be his corrections commissioner to clean up a mess in the state prison. But given that he cleaned up some of the most violent lockups in America, former prison chaplain and prisoner-issues activist Stan Moody sees Ponte as the man to fix the prison's management problems — like abuse of inmates, low guard morale, high guard turnover, and what the Legislature's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability called in 2009 the prison's negative "organizational culture" — called by Moody a corrupt "old boy" network.
If Ponte fixed those problems, that would be an achievement. But what about the bigger problems of the whole prison system, the ones that affect the public most?
These include the high recidivism (return to crime) of released prisoners, stemming from the lack of educational and other programs to help ex-offenders become useful citizens; the large number of mentally ill inmates whose "treatment" often is solitary confinement in the prison's "supermax" unit, which makes them sicker; and the ever-mounting bill to taxpayers of tough-on-crime public policy that sentences minor, nonviolent lawbreakers to long terms? The same problems exist in the county jails, for which the Department of Corrections in 2008 was given oversight.
To gauge what Ponte could get done, let's look at his record.
Ponte, 64, gets high marks even from prisoner-rights advocates, who tend not to shower praise on corrections officials. He is known for toughness and competence — and, after decades in the field, for experience.
In 1980, at the tender age of 33, after working up through guard ranks beginning soon after his discharge from the Marines at 21, he became superintendent of Walpole prison in Massachusetts. It was "the toughest of the tough" prisons, says Joe Landolfi, now an official at Massachusetts's Department of Transportation but then public-relations man for the corrections department. From 1971 to 1980, the overcrowded prison saw 29 inmates murdered by other inmates. But Ponte "knew how to run a maximum-security prison," Landolfi says.
He was "a pretty strict guy," recalls Jim Pingeon, a veteran lawyer for Prisoners' Legal Services in Boston, which challenges prison conditions. But, he says, Ponte also was "reasonably fair" and "responsive."
Ponte tightened security, expanded staff training, increased recreation, enlarged visiting hours, and hired more minority employees. Daily he stood in a hallway and allowed inmates to complain directly to him. (Maine State Prison inmates have said they rarely saw Jeffrey Merrill, the longtime warden fired in 2009 amid increasing prison scandals.)
Walpole "never stopped having problems," Pingeon says, but by several accounts he made it less violent, more orderly, and staff morale climbed. A 1982 Boston Globe profile called him "the boy wonder" of Massachusetts corrections.