In a continuing shakeup at the troubled Maine State Prison, new Corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has fired six top officials including its controversial security chief, Deputy Warden James O'Farrell. Prisoners, prison critics, and former employees had long complained that O'Farrell handled both inmates and staff callously.
The mass dismissal on June 10 came after a big security breach, the May 24 beating of inmate Lloyd Franklin Millet in the prison woodshop, allegedly at the hands of another inmate. Millet died on June 7 — the latest in a string of violent or suspicious inmate deaths in recent years.
Commissioner Ponte says the dismissals were made to save money and had "nothing to do" with the employees' performance. He had long heard criticism, he says, "that there were too many department wardens and captains." Besides O'Farrell, four guard captains and a training manager at the Warren facility were given pink slips, with two weeks' notice.
Associate commissioner Jody Breton says the layoffs will save $625,000 in the next fiscal year, though the total will be less when accrued vacation and comp time are subtracted. O'Farrell made close to $70,000 a year. Breton says no plans have yet been made how to use the savings.
The $625,000 includes money saved by the firing, also on June 10, of Jeffrey Merrill, who after being dismissed as the prison's warden in 2009 (following the beating and death of inmate Sheldon Weinstein and a highly critical legislative investigation of the prison) had been given a $59,000-a-year position in charge of reducing department energy expenses.
The guard captains let go are Millard Rackliffe, Dennis Ruel, Richard Brooks, and Ronald Spearing. The training manager dismissed is Bonita (Bonnie) Johnson. The firings fueled speculation among prison critics that warden Patricia Barnhart, who replaced Merrill, would be the next to go.
Although Ponte says "much needs to be improved" at the prison, "we've got the right team in there to move forward," he adds. When Ponte was appointed earlier this year, Governor Paul LePage's office said he was chosen "to address a number of issues in the department, including some that have been areas of concern for a long time."
Former guard Ira Scherr, once the president of the state correctional officers' union and a longtime prison critic, says he feels "vindicated" by the firings. He believes the recent prisoner death was not why some of the dismissals occurred: "These guys were going to be going anyway."
Prison critics were celebrating. Some had complained to Ponte about several of the individuals fired — particularly about O'Farrell. Complaints over prison management have cited the abuse of prisoners, unfair treatment of lower-level guards, and poor inmate and guard safety. "There's very lax security there," says former prison chaplain Stan Moody, recalling the deaths of Weinstein and, later in 2009, of inmate Victor Valdez.
Weinstein died after being beaten, allegedly by other prisoners, but no one has been charged with the crime. His widow has sued prison officials, claiming his injuries weren't treated properly. The attorney general found that Valdez's death was from natural causes, but prisoners claim he was beaten by guards, and his family plans to sue officials.
Breton says Gary LaPlante, from the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, will take over security for all adult prisons. Another training manager will take over Johnson's duties.
Ponte had already shaken up the prison by reducing by more than half — to 60 inmates — the population of the notorious solitary-confinement "supermax" or Special Management Unit and requiring guards to stop throwing inmates into it — many of them mentally ill — for lengthy stays for minor rule violations (see "Reform Comes to the Supermax," by Lance Tapley, May 27).