Wave of reform

There is now a chance to fix Maine’s broken corrections system, but only if the public speaks up
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  February 6, 2008
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"Educating Inmates" By Lance Tapley.
A wave of change is moving swiftly toward Maine’s jails and prisons. It could bring major reform — or a bureaucratic jumble.

Activists, inmates, and defense attorneys have been crying for prison reform in Maine for years. Prisons and jails cost taxpayers an ever-increasing fortune, but rarely rehabilitate prisoners to prevent them from committing new crimes when they are released. They also fail to adequately treat their many mentally ill inmates, and the Maine State Prison has tortured some who are discipline problems (see “Torture in Maine’s Prison,” by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005). State officials have appeared reluctant to change their ways.

But in late January the state Department of Corrections, which administers eight prisons as well as the probation system, and the county governments, which run Maine’s 15 jails, jointly announced a plan to create a nine-member state Board of Corrections. If approved by the Legislature, the new board would oversee, coordinate, and — theoretically — reform both prisons and jails by instituting “evidence-based practices”— by which officials mean practices that work. On February 4, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee began crafting a bill to make the proposal law.

“Everything is up for grabs” in the state’s penal system, says Peter Lehman, of Thomaston, a prison-reform activist, PhD sociologist, and former Maine State Prison inmate who is monitoring the committee’s work. “Major changes, reforms, realignments are possible.”

Stan Gerzofsky (D-Brunswick), the committee's House chairman, concurs. “Absolutely,” he says, the opportunity exists to redo corrections in Maine.

Under the plan, the governor would appoint Board of Corrections members, subject to confirmation by the committee and the state Senate. But many details of what the board and the new prison and jail system will be — and do — are likely to depend on citizen input. Gerzofsky says his committee will hold at least 100 hours of meetings for public comment. The committee also will hold a public hearing after it writes the legislation.

The new correctional scheme has its origin in demands from taxpayers and politicians to control prison and jail costs. But the prison-reform and human-rights community that Peter Lehman represents is hopeful its voice will be heard more clearly now. A new, grassroots Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition — the first statewide group in many years to be devoted to prisoner issues — was launched on January 20 when 35 people met in a Belfast church. The coalition brings together Portland’s Blackbird Legal Collective, Waldo County’s Restorative Justice Project, Ellsworth’s Volunteers for Hancock Jail Residents, the Maine Native Prison Project, Peace Action Maine, and other organizations.

Members of the founding group included a carpenter, a security guard, an attorney, a college professor, a “lay-ordained Zen Buddhist,” and family members and friends of prisoners — plus former prisoners such as Lehman, Raymond Luc Levasseur, and Robbie Bothen (the latter two among the founders of SCAR, the Statewide Alliance for Correctional Reform, which was active in the 1970s).

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