Installed by conservative Republican Governor Paul LePage last winter, Maine's new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, 64, immediately set about reforming the prison system. His priority was the Maine State Prison's often-full-up, 132-cell solitary-confinement "supermax" unit — a/k/a the Special Management Unit, SMU, "segregation," or "seg."
It was notorious for abusive treatment of prisoners, many mentally ill. The long terms of solitary, often for discipline, damaged inmates' minds, and "cell extractions" of disobedient inmates by guards damaged their bodies.
But now, on a recent day, only 34 prisoners were in solitary, about 30 percent the number often in isolation before Ponte took over — and most are there for brief stays. Cell extractions have dropped to almost none.
In the supermax's 32-bed Mental Health Unit, Ponte has ended solitary confinement (half its inmates were frequently kept in solitary). He is instituting more humane discipline throughout the Warren prison and the state's other correctional facilities.
Future reforms, Ponte says, include "more effective interaction at the street level" with offenders on probation to keep more out of prison. Half the inmates in prison are there because of probation revocations.
Ponte also has made the prisons more transparent. He appointed prisoner-rights advocates to a department committee designing the reforms and recently gave some of them a lengthy tour of the state prison, including the supermax. They met with dozens of inmates and staff.
The tour "lifted away more shadows that have covered dysfunctional practices at the prison for decades," says Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.
Garvey cautions, however, that "inmates, staff, and advocates agree it's too early to weigh the results of change, and that tensions can be high as new policies are implemented." Still, she's hopeful Maine will become "a model for treatment of prisoners for the rest of the country."
YOU'VE MADE BIG CHANGES — ESPECIALLY IN THE SPECIAL MANAGEMENT UNIT AND THE MAINE STATE PRISON AS A WHOLE. IS THIS SOMETHING THAT YOU WANTED TO DO BEFORE YOU CAME TO MAINE? No. It was waiting for me when I arrived. There had been threats of lawsuits by the ACLU. A substantial committee had been put together that had worked for a good amount of time to develop what the concerns were. So I put a group together — led by Rod Bouffard from the Long Creek youth facility — to make the changes. And you're right, there have been substantial changes. It is a big deal. It's a lot for a staff to adjust to. It's a whole different way of doing business.
I get asked the question: Do you get a lot of staff resistance? Well, we had trained staff for many, many years to do business a certain way, and now we're telling them here's another way of doing business. It took a good deal of leadership by Warden [Patricia] Barnhart and Charlie Charlton, the SMU unit manager, to convince staff there is another way, and try this, and it's worked.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT'S WORKED? We have 60 beds that have been closed for three or four months. We're utilizing about 40-something beds on any given day. So inmates that were typically locked up in segregation are now being managed in general population. Segregation tends not to fix the problem that the inmate needs to address.