The Maine Department of Corrections is violating at least two of three 35-year-old federal court orders that grant prisoners access to the press, allow them to write to newspapers, and prohibit prison officials from arbitrarily transferring prisoners out of state if they exercise their rights. The state admits two of the orders have never been superseded.
In the activist climate of an earlier era, a Maine legal-aid group brought and won three prisoner-rights lawsuits against state corrections officials. Those cases resulted in the following federal-court rulings:
1) Prison officials are required to allow reporters to interview inmates in all the state’s prisons, with few restrictions;
2) Prison officials must allow inmates at the Maine State Prison to write letters to reporters freely complaining about their treatment; and
3) Maine Corrections should not have moved an inmate from one prison to another without a hearing or other due-process procedures. (In the case at issue, an activist inmate had been abruptly shipped out of state.)
The orders were signed by Judge Edward Gignoux in 1972 and 1973. They are called consent decrees because each was imposed — decreed — after an agreement by the parties — consent — to settle a lawsuit.
To look at its actions — including aggressive resistance to press access to prisoners — the state Department of Corrections has ignored these consent decrees for some time, and corrections officials have been aggressively defended by their lawyers in the attorney general’s department.
After the decrees were discovered by the Portland Phoenix, the department and its attorneys — including Attorney General Steven Rowe — were asked about the decrees’ authority and when they had learned of them. They refused to make any comment on them for several weeks. Finally, just before the Phoenix’s deadline, Rowe’s department issued a statement on the two orders that deal with the press: “Nothing specifically supersedes them, but they are dependent on the past facts of the situation and how the law and the policy have since evolved.”
Even the evolutionary forces over years within the legal environment, though, may not have an effect on the decrees. University of Maine School of Law professor Orlando Delogu says, “I don't see how a consent decree handed down by a federal court involving the State of Maine and a group of plaintiff prisoners within a state institution could be or would be modified” even by a United States Supreme Court decision on a legal principle. Generally, says Delogu, a consent decree is “valid unless modified or repealed” by the court. “A consent decree binds the parties.”
The AG’s office says the third order, dealing with prisoner transfers, is no longer in effect because it deals with an individual who has since died. But an attorney for a Maine State Prison inmate activist who was transferred out of state in a recently controversial case believes it may still apply.