Neither Corrections nor its attorneys, by press time, had said when they had learned about the consent decrees.Reporter and prisoner activism
The suits were brought against several top corrections officials by several inmates and, in the suit over the rights of reporters to interview prisoners, by a freelance contributor to the Maine Sunday Telegram, Norma Jane Langford.
The attorneys who filed these lawsuits in Federal District Court worked for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a Maine organization designed to help poor people with legal problems — which it does to this day, though in more limited ways (see sidebar, “Wave of Activism”). The Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), a branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, pitched in on the Langford suit.
The orders are still “in force,” maintains Neville Woodruff, 68, who, not long out of law school, worked on all three suits back in 1971 and ’72. Now retired in Colorado, Woodruff believes the Corrections Department, if it is not following the orders, may be in contempt of federal court.
These orders probably will be used as weapons in increasingly lively prisoner-rights battles involving the press and the Department of Corrections. The department has been opposing access to prisoners except under conditions that Maine news media see as incompatible with freedom of the press.
Capitol News Service chief Mal Leary, the dean of State-House newsmen and the lead person on freedom-of-information issues for the state Society of Professional Journalists, sees the two orders affirming the rights of the press as “wonderful. . . . It gives us reporters a much better basis for access.”
And attorney Lynne Williams, whose client, prisoner Deane Brown, was shipped out of state last year in a close parallel to the case decades ago, is contemplating further legal action based on the consent decrees.
Brown has sued the state in federal court over his transfer. He maintains he was sent to the most dangerous prison in Maryland for speaking out against abuse of inmates at the Warren prison’s solitary-confinement “Supermax” unit. Brown was a major source of information for the Phoenix’s articles on this subject over the past year and a half (which began with “Torture in Maine’s Prison,” by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005).
The Phoenix obtained copies of the decrees after two months of research on prison-media issues that began at the Maine State Library newspaper microfilm collection in Augusta. The research then proceeded to Internet databases; the correspondence files of 1970s’ governor Kenneth Curtis at the state archives in Augusta; telephone conversations with Langford, Woodruff, and several older lawyers in Maine; phone conversations with Portland’s federal court and federal archive officials in Massachusetts and Washington; and, finally, Freedom of Access Act (freedom of information) requests to state officials including the assistant attorney general who represents Corrections, Diane Sleek, who eventually produced the documents — from the state archives, she says.
In the 1970s, Woodruff represented reporter Langford for the MCLU. Zachary Heiden, the civil-liberties group’s current staff attorney, is heartened by the discovery of the consent decrees.
“Thirty-five years ago, the State of Maine agreed that prisoners have rights,” he says. “Those rights still protect inmates and protect reporters concerned about the operation of our public prisons.”