A couple of cracks have opened in the state’s armor of prison secrecy. The attorney general is reviewing the Maine State Prison’s recently imposed draconian policy on inmate interviews, and the state revealed it may discipline a prison employee in the case of a Supermax suicide last fall.
After negative publicity and protests from journalists’ organizations, Governor John Baldacci on January 24 asked Attorney General Steven Rowe to examine the prison’s restrictions on reporters, which were instituted in early December. Baldacci wants “an appropriate balance between government transparency and prisoner confidentiality and security,” according to a statement from his press office.
Denise Lord, associate corrections commissioner, said on the same day that she thought the attorney general’s review — which she suggested would involve a rewriting of the restrictions — would take only “a few days” to be completed. As the Phoenix went to press, Diane Sleek, the assistant attorney general who represents Corrections, was taking comments on the policy from journalists.
Lord said her department wanted a “positive relationship with the media” and that “security and safety” at the Warren prison were behind the restrictions. “We are not interested in making this a huge issue. We never intended it to get blown up to the point where it appears we are blocking media access.”
After a year-long series of Phoenix stories reporting abuse of inmates in its solitary-confinement Supermax or Special Management Unit, the prison had demanded that this reporter — and, presumably, all other reporters — sign an agreement governing interviews. The Phoenix’s information on prison conditions largely came from interviews with prisoners.
The agreement would severely limit questions a reporter may ask; forbid him or her from publishing certain information even if a prisoner volunteered it; allow the prison to monitor interviews; and allow the prison to confiscate photos, film, sound recordings, “or other information or material not authorized” by the prison, which could include notebooks.
In the past, prison officials had not monitored prison-reporter conversations, had not attempted to control questions, and had not threatened confiscation of reporters’ property.
In what appeared to be a parallel squelching of news from the prison, in mid-November the prison had shipped the most vocal inmate critic of the Supermax, Deane Brown, a 42-year-old burglar, to the Maryland Supermax, where he is not permitted to make or receive phone calls.
The Phoenix would not agree to interviews under the conditions demanded by the prison, and protested them to the Corrections Department, the attorney general, and the governor. It saw the restrictions as contrary to freedom of the press, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Others in the news business agreed. The Maine chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began work with other media groups around the state to oppose the restrictions.
Mal Leary, of Capitol News Service, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, told Maine Public Radio’s Maine Things Considered news program that the restrictions were “unconstitutional” and “absurd.”
Sigmund Schutz, a media lawyer with Preti Flaherty, a statewide law firm, said, “It’s blatantly unconstitutional to restrict what you can do with lawfully obtained information,” including confiscation by prison officials.
Lord said the restrictions had long existed on paper but had never been enforced: “The practice has been to trust the media.”