Several weeks after firing Maine State Prison warden Patricia Barnhart and two years after taking over the Department of Corrections, Commissioner Joseph Ponte appears determined to continue — and ramp up — his forceful program of reform.
In an interview at the DOC's Augusta headquarters, the calm, 66-year-old corrections veteran spoke about his accomplishments, intentions, and frustrations. In spite of the latter, running the department "is the most fun I've had," he said. Maine has a "small enough" corrections system so "you can see the result" of your work.
NEW PHILOSOPHY AND LEADERSHIP Within the limits of a tight budget and some recalcitrant correctional officers, Ponte is trying to replace warehousing and punishing prisoners with what inmates need to turn their lives around. When he took over the DOC he saw how well that approach worked at the two youth centers, where the recidivism rate, of returning to prison after release, had declined significantly. He decided to apply the approach to adult offenders.
Ponte's philosophy is seen in his choices for his recently reconstituted team. Rodney Bouffard, longtime head of the Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland, has been named acting warden of the state prison, in Warren. Long Creek was "a grim place" a dozen years ago, in the words of the DOC's just-retired juvenile-services chief, Barry Stoodley (see sidebar). Bouffard transformed it into a national model for reform, emphasizing psychological treatment and education.
Ponte has put Joseph Fitzpatrick, the psychologist who has directed the department's mental-health services, into Stoodley's former job. Cynthia Brann, a former regional juvenile offender administrator, now heads up adult probation and the five minimum-security facilities.
"We have to present opportunities for the inmate" to be successful, Ponte said. "Get these guys out of the cellblock." He noted, though, "We don't have the level of services on the adult side as we do on the juvenile side."
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT Under Ponte's watch, Maine has become a leader in solitary-confinement reform. Generally, there are 35 to 40 inmates in the state prison's "supermax," as opposed to an often-full-up 100 in the past. Some prisoners only spend hours or a few days there, to cool off. Ponte has spoken in other states about his success in reducing solitary. Still, a lot of states "are denying the need."
By throwing out one-size-fits-all disciplinary rules, Ponte virtually eliminated once-common supermax prisoner self-mutilation ("cutting") and the guards' violent "cell extractions" of disobedient prisoners to take them to the restraint chair. Instead, officers negotiate with a troubled inmate. Maybe it's necessary to "give them something," Ponte said. He cited an example of letting a prisoner paint murals.
MENTAL HEALTH CARE Ponte said punishment is no longer used to control mentally ill inmates in the supermax's Mental Health Unit. Generally, six to eight prisoners are there; in the past, all 20 cells often were full.
MEDICAL CARE Last year Ponte replaced the heavily criticized health-care provider Corizon with Correct Care Solutions, another national company. "The change has been positive," he said, adding that he receives far fewer complaint letters from inmates. He's gotten control of medical overspending, in the last fiscal year covering a $1.2 million overage from the previous year and producing a small surplus.