Inmate sues prison officials in federal court

First amendment watch
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 18, 2007

Did the Maine Department of Corrections violate the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee by keeping inmate and human-rights activist Deane Brown from contact with the news media at the Maine State Prison’s Supermax?

And did the department violate the First Amendment by shipping him last November 500 miles away from the Maine media to Maryland’s Supermax in Baltimore — allegedly also in retaliation for speaking out when he did manage to contact the media?

Did the department violate the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment by keeping him in “inhumane and dangerous conditions” in the Warren prison’s harsh solitary-confinement unit?

And did the department violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process by using improper administrative procedures to confine him in the Maine Supermax and transfer him to Maryland?

The answer is yes to all these constitutional questions, according to a suit against Corrections officials filed May 8 in Maine federal court on Brown’s behalf by civil-rights attorney Lynne Williams, of Bar Harbor, an official with the National Lawyers Guild, a 6000-member, left-wing legal association. Williams has called Brown a “political prisoner.” The suit claims the department also violated federal civil-rights statutes in dealing with Brown. Those sued include Martin Magnusson, Corrections commissioner; Jeffrey Merrill, prison warden; and several prison officials and guards.

Williams says the suit’s success could impact Maine correctional policies on access to the press, prisoner treatment, and transfers.

Brown, 43, of Rockland, serving a 59-year sentence for burglary, had been the Portland Phoenix’s chief informant for its ongoing series on abusive conditions at the Supermax. The series, which has drawn special attention to the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, began in November 2005. Through telephone calls, Brown also had appeared on broadcasts of a Rockland radio station. (See “Baldacci’s ‘Political Prisoner’,” by Lance Tapley, November 24, 2006.)

Judge John A. Woodcock in Bangor will handle the case. Brown is seeking “relief and compensatory and punitive damages.” Attorney Williams says relief could include bringing Brown back to Maine.

As of May 15, corrections officials were still being served with legal papers. They have maintained that Brown’s transfer to Maryland occurred because he was a “very serious threat” to the prison. They said he had a connection with an escape attempt last October, although he has not been charged in that incident.

After the Phoenix’s Supermax series began, Magnusson instituted reforms, though Brown and others have described them as inadequate, claiming as evidence the suicide of a mentally ill Supermax inmate, Ryan Rideout, last October.

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