I had not interviewed a prisoner for six months, since the Maine Department of Corrections wanted to impose unconstitutional restrictions: monitoring of interviews, prior approval of what I wrote, confiscation of information “not authorized.” These demands were made after my Phoenix stories on abuse of inmates at the Warren state prison.
Since October, the Phoenix, news media groups, and the Maine Civil Liberties Union have protested to Corrections, Governor John Baldacci, and Attorney General Steven Rowe over these demands. (See “Lockdown: What Do Prison Officials Have To Hide?,” December 15, 2006; “An Insult to Justice,” February 2; “Cracks in the Armor,” February 2, all by Lance Tapley; and “Corrections Department Obstructs Free Press,” March 16, by Jeff Inglis.)
But recently I thought the state might be backing off. Corrections commissioner Marty Magnusson said I could go into the prisons under the old rules, which had allowed virtually unhampered access to prisoners. The only difference, he said, was that a prison staffer would be present during an interview. I protested — I thought that under these circumstances a prisoner might fear retribution if he spoke freely — but I told him I’d “see how it works.”
My first interview was scheduled for April 27 at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, with Rama Carty, 36, who is serving two years for drug trafficking. He had written me an articulate letter explaining how home confinement and the reinstatement of parole were solutions to prison overcrowding. I was impressed with one of his closing lines: “Being human means evolving towards the humane.”
We met in a tiny room with a ratty desk and cheap chairs. Carty was a stocky, handsome man of Haitian descent who had attended the University of Massachusetts and spoke three languages. Our monitor was Ken Sawyer, administrative assistant to the Windham superintendent, Scott Burnheimer — who had told me on the phone that his monitor wouldn’t interrupt us, a point I had emphasized in an e-mail to Magnusson.
“Why is he here?” Carty wanted to know right off about Sawyer. “I feel that my right to freedom of speech is encumbered.”
I told Carty I had protested Sawyer’s presence.
I began to ask about the condition of another Windham prisoner who had communicated with me.
“He can’t discuss other prisoners,” interrupted Sawyer. He repeated this when our conversation verged on other matters involving prison conditions.
Carty had wanted to discuss the post-conviction review his lawyer is preparing. But, he said nervously, “I really am not in a position to discuss it with you under the circumstances.”
He said he also felt restrained by Sawyer’s presence in talking about the overcrowding issue. He did say that overcrowding presented “no significant problem” at Windham.
He wanted “to reserve comment” on the Baldacci plan to ship 125 prisoners to a private Oklahoma prison (see “Prisoners as Commodities,” by Lance Tapley, April 27).
“This is really strange,” he said of Sawyer’s presence.
He added: “If the public were to have different information [on prison issues], the outcome would be different.”
Monitored interviews help assure that “different information” — different from the Corrections viewpoint — will be locked up like the prisoners.