NAACP, others bristle after GOP Senator censors anti-private-prison testimony

Words ‘slavery,’ ‘racism’ banned
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 4, 2011

tji_prison_Mason_main
CENSOR GOP Senator Garrett Mason tells people what they can and can’t say.
What is it with some Republicans and racial issues, anyway?

First, Governor Paul LePage told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to kiss his butt. Then his Economic and Community Development commissioner, Philip Congdon, was forced to resign after reportedly saying, among other insulting things, that American education had deteriorated because of affirmative action.

And now — at an April 29 public hearing — Republican Senator Garrett Mason, of Lisbon Falls, the Criminal Justice Committee chairman, told people speaking against LD 1095, a bill to allow putting inmates in private prisons, that they couldn't use the words "slavery" and "racism" in their testimony.

Mason told Auburn rabbi Hillel Katzir he was out of line when he said a government that lets prisoners be "bought and sold and traded in the interests of a private business's bottom line" engages in "state-sponsored slavery." Mason said such usage "will be ruled out of order."

Then he interrupted Rebecca Sender, calling her out of line when she said an Arizona law allowing police to detain anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant "the most racist immigration law in America." Sender, from Waldo, said a lobbyist for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which has expressed interest in building a prison in Maine, was an author of the Arizona law.

Mason's unusual actions stimulated audience member and Dover-Foxcroft resident Peter Brenc to do something unusual for a State House chamber — to yell, as he left, "This is not free speech! It's a bunch of crap to tell people what they can say and what they can't say!"

"The Arizona bill is racist. There's no reason we should not be able to say it is," commented Rachel Talbot Ross, the NAACP's state director, about Mason's actions. "I am dismayed that the committee members allowed him to get away with this type of censorship."

Sponsored by Doug Thomas, a Piscataquis County Republican senator, LD 1095 is intended to help the impoverished town of Milo entice CCA to build a big prison there. Thomas's understanding was that CCA needed the law changed to allow Maine inmates to be sent to private prisons before the corporation would consider building one in the state.

But CCA lobbyist James Mitchell said, "Unequivocally, there is no quid pro quo" — though he said CCA supports the bill because it would enhance a possible "business relationship" between the company and the state.

"But if there's no quid pro quo, then why do we need the bill?" asked Jim Bergin, an opponent, after the hearing.

During the hearing, there was confusion on all sides about the bill. Its title is: "An Act to Facilitate the Construction and Operation of Private Prisons by Authorizing the Transport of Prisoners out of State." Thomas had thought CCA just wanted to be able to have Maine prisoners in its out-of-state facilities. But, trying to get it right in satisfying CCA, Thomas gave the committee new bill language simply allowing Mainers to be put into private prisons — apparently, anywhere.

The new language will fuel Democrats' fears that LePage, whose campaign got $25,000 from CCA, wants to privatize Maine's correctional system, although the governor has pledged that he won't. Mitchell said CCA hadn't determined where inmates in a Maine prison might come from.

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