Waves of activism

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  June 27, 2007

Maine prison bosses violate court orders: Department of Corrections ignores federal rulings going back to the 1970s. By Lance Tapley.
Press behind bars. By Lance Tapley.
The three federal consent decrees were a product of Maine’s previous wave of prisoner-rights activism — more than 35 years ago. This wave was part of the tsunami of liberal reform in the 1960s and early 1970s.

To open a front in the War on Poverty, the Lyndon Johnson administration established Pine Tree Legal Assistance in 1965 as one of many such groups aiding low-income people around the country. The legal warriors were not just wild-eyed, left-wing radicals. Pine Tree Legal’s distinguished alumni include former independent governor Angus King and Susan Calkins, a Maine Supreme Judicial Court justice.

Now living in Grand Junction, Colorado, Neville Woodruff, the attorney at the center of the lawsuits that resulted in the consent decrees, is a largely forgotten hero of Maine’s era of social action. He also worked on another federal prison case, Lovell v. Brennan, decided in 1983. In part, it came down on the side of inmates held in the equivalent of the present Supermax. In Lovell, prisoners’ due-process rights had been “blatantly” violated by the procedures determining if they should be placed in “administrative segregation,” the court decided. The court also found the old Thomaston prison’s “restraint cells” violated inmates’ constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and it ordered their use discontinued, calling the filthy, unheated, unventilated, windowless cells, barren except for a toilet hole in the floor, “barbaric and uncivilized.”

Woodruff and other Pine Tree Legal lawyers shook the foundations of another state-run institution. In the group’s most famous case, they sued the state on behalf of developmentally disabled people — “the retarded” — housed at the Pineland Center near Pownal. This case resulted in the 1978 federal Pineland consent decree, which eventually closed the facility and set up the present system of community care for the type of person who used to be confined there.

As the country became more conservative, Pine Tree Legal’s budget shrank, and such federally funded organizations were forbidden in 1996 to initiate class-action suits or advocate on behalf of prisoners. Pine Tree Legal is still around, but it is restricted to representing poor people in their personal disputes.

Some of the leaders of SCAR, the activist group of prisoners and former prisoners that worked with Pine Tree Legal to achieve the consent decrees, are also still around.

After reporter Norma Jane Langford was successful with her suit, she remembers, she traveled to a meeting in Thomaston in a van with SCAR’s Raymond Luc Levasseur, who soon was to go underground as a member of a radical group accused of bank robberies and corporate-office bombings. Also in the van was long-haired Alan Caron, SCAR’s chairman. He is now the buttoned-down head of GrowSmart Maine, an anti-sprawl group headquartered in Yarmouth (see "Unvarnished," by Sara Donnelly, September 29, 2006). Levasseur, who spent 20 years in federal prisons, is a plumber in Brunswick, though still a social activist (see “Prisoners of Politics,” by Rick Wormwood, September 15, 2006).

Augustus Heald died some years ago. Richard Picariello, who sued to get the right to send letters to the press, also was a SCAR member. He later was convicted of bombing Central Maine Power Company headquarters in Augusta and planning other bombings in a campaign against corporate power. At the end of a long prison term, he was freed in the mid-1990s and, according to news reports, is now an aggressive anti-Iraq-War activist in the Boston area.

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