Leary says, “It is incumbent on the attorney general — now that this is out there — to make sure that the policies used by the Department of Corrections” fit with the consent decrees.

He also comments on the attorney general’s hesitation to answer questions about when he or his department knew about the consent decrees: “I don’t understand it. Either they didn’t know about them, which I’m hoping was the case, or they knew, and then their attitude defending restrictions on the press makes no sense to me.”

Governor John Baldacci’s spokesman says the governor’s staff was unaware of the consent decrees until the Phoenix asked about them. Speaking of the issues involved, David Farmer says the governor takes “questions of open government very seriously,” but “safety and privacy,” too, have to be weighed when considering reporters’ access to prisoners.

Class-action suits
The three lawsuits were Langford v. Murphy, Picariello v. Robbins, and Heald v. Mullaney. The first two were “class action” suits. Langford was brought on behalf of all Maine reporters and all Maine prison-system inmates; Picariello was brought on behalf of just the state prison’s inmates. The third suit, Heald, which addressed the system’s right to ship convicts from one prison to another, dealt with the wrong done to one prisoner, but it may have implications for all such transfers.

In Langford, inmate Kenneth Denault joined the Sunday Telegram writer to sue for permission to speak with each other. In that era, access generally was denied. “They seemed blindsided by the whole idea of media scrutiny,” Langford says of prison officials. The resulting order established that “inmates of correctional institutions in the State of Maine and members of the news media are entitled to have access to each other and open lines of communication.”

As part of the legal settlement, Corrections officials had to write a media policy, apparently the department's first. Effective at the start of 1972, the court-endorsed policy laid out the details of media-prisoner contact. It required “promptly arranged” coverage or access, allowed cameras and sound-recording devices into the prisons, and required access even to prisoners housed in “segregated confinement,” which nowadays largely means the 100-prisoner Supermax. Denial of access or coverage could be only on safety or security grounds.

In Picariello, the federal court determined that Maine State Prison inmates “have a right under the First Amendment to send letters to the Press concerning prison management, treatment of offenders, or personal grievances.” Its chief plaintiff, Richard Picariello, was an inmate who belonged to a prisoner-rights organization called SCAR, the Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform.

Responses from and interactions with state Corrections officials during the time the Phoenix has been reporting on prison conditions have not conformed to the standards set by the court in those two cases (see sidebar, “Press Behind Bars”).

The third order, the Heald consent decree, deals with “intrastate and interstate inter-institutional transfer of residents of institutions under the administrative supervision” of Corrections. Transfer decisions need “procedural due process” required under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The suit was brought by Augustus Heald, a convicted robber who was taken from the state prison in 1971, in the governor’s plane, to a notoriously harsh federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. This action was a consequence, his attorneys said, of his complaints about Maine prison conditions as head of the inmates’ council. Judge Gignoux found that his transfer “without prior notice or opportunity for hearing” was invalid. Heald was brought back to Maine in 1973.

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