A self-proclaimed “radical lawyer” and a Ph.D. psychologist, Williams, of Bar Harbor, is a key person in Maine in the struggle against what she suggests is the totalitarianism of the corrections system. “The goal in a totalitarian regime is silence and no dissent,” she notes.
She says she intends in January to sue the Department of Corrections, in a federal civil-rights action, with the support of the National Lawyers Guild, a 6000-member, left-wing group, over the department’s denial of Brown’s First Amendment rights. She wants to bring Brown back to Maine and allow him access to the press.
“Prisoners have a free-speech right to communicate with the outside world, whether family, friends, or reporters, about prison conditions,” Williams says. “And the outside community surely has a right to that information.”
Maine School of Law professor Orlando Delogu comments: “The tendency in the bureaucracy is to think that people don’t care about [prisoners] and they can do whatever they want with them. The reality of the law is they may be bad people but you still don’t get to do whatever you want. They have constitutional rights, with safeguards and limitations.”
Few would dispute that very strict security is needed in a prison, but allowing a facsimile of a totalitarian system to reproduce within its high walls is not only constitutionally unjust to prisoners, it allows harshness, including physical and psychological abuse — up to and including torture — to grow and metastasize. In the 1980s, after writing exposés of abuse at the state’s Baxter School for the Deaf and Pineland Center for developmentally disabled people, I used to say to my friends, “Show me any institution where people have great and unsupervised power over others, and I will show you great abuse.”
It is perhaps sadly normal, too, for a prison bureaucracy to want to exercise the same control on those without its walls as it does on those within. These officials are in the business of control. Nationally, politically active prisoners are regularly punished for their speech, and reporters find their access to prisoners cut off, says Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News: “It happens all the time. This is the standard playbook from around the country.”
Despite promised reforms — a few of which, to the department’s credit, have begun to be implemented — the Maine State Prison and its Supermax remain, a year after the beginning of the Phoenix’s series, a mostly closed, arbitrary, super-harsh world in which officials appear now to want to apply stern rules to reporters as well as to prisoners.
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