At an October 26 event attended by five previous awardees and nearly 30 others, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine presented Portland Phoenix writer Lance Tapley with its 2012 Roger Baldwin Award, recognizing his nearly 100 stories over seven years exposing solitary confinement and other torture of inmates in Maine's prison system.
According to ACLU of Maine executive director Shenna Bellows, Tapley's reporting, which began in 2005, prompted the ACLU of Maine to decide to focus on prisoner treatment (specifically the elimination of solitary confinement), an issue on which the civil-rights organization has led pressure for reform both nationally and in the state. Bellows also told the assembled group that the ACLU's interest — and threat of impending legal action — was key in pressuring new Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to undertake sweeping reforms that have significantly reduced the use of solitary confinement, both in terms of prisoner numbers and duration of their stays.
Though solitary confinement has not yet been eradicated in Maine, the ACLU of Maine credits Tapley (and the Portland Phoenix) with having inspired the effort and kept media pressure on, while activists and lobbyists attacked the problem from other angles.
Both Bellows and ACLU of Maine board president John Paterson described Tapley's work as "exemplary journalism" and "rare" evidence of a commitment of a journalist and a media organization working over many years, despite many obstacles, to seek truth and right wrongs.
Tapley, for his part, thanked his wife, Peggy, and many supporters, but took most of his time to highlight another example of torture in the corrections system. He read from a disturbing letter he received from an inmate recently returned to Maine from out of state, describing abhorrent, cruel, traumatic, mentally damaging, and life-threatening treatment during the multi-week trip across the country in a privately owned prisoner-transport van.
As ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said during the event, if all ACLU offices and staffers nationwide could stop everything they're doing and focus solely on prison-related issues, they would have enough work to keep themselves busy for a very long time.
Tapley ended his remarks about the abuses encounters in prisoner transportation by saying, "It needs to stop. If you'd like to help, let me know."
Bellows responded, as she took the lectern, "Emphatically, yes."