Falling down

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  November 5, 2008

“The staff are absolutely wearing out,” Magnusson told the Bangor Daily News last year.

To reduce guard stress, Magnusson has said he has made improvements to the way the prison is run. In a January report to the federal National Institute of Corrections, the department admitted that in 2005 guards in the Supermax were “suffering the impact of battle fatigue,” including “stress-related consequences to their health.” But since then, the report said, there has been a huge reduction in the use of traumatic-to-all-involved cell “extractions,” in which a team of guards dons battle gear and takes a disobedient prisoner out of a cell to put him into a “restraint” chair.

One guard — who was afraid of the consequences if her name appeared in a newspaper — said training, too, has improved. But she chimed in with others that there’s “not enough staff,” the pay is low, and putting very young people in a pod alone with large numbers of inmates is a potential problem.

Help unlikely soon
“Until there is political will to invest in prisons, conditions for both staff and inmates will not improve,” says the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons.

At the Labor Committee meeting, several legislators seemed sympathetic to the guards’ complaints. But Strimling, the chairman, commented in a later interview: “We can’t get involved in personnel issues.” Scherr says the committee is “afraid to touch” the issue of working conditions.

Why? Almost universally, Maine legislators and other politicians are loath to question how the prisons are run — or even to pay attention to them. When reports of abuse surface, for example, Democratic Governor John Baldacci backs up Magnusson in a seemingly reflexive manner. Realists say politicians understand there are few votes in the prisons.

“There’s no constituency for these people,” says state senator Peter Mills, a Republican from Somerset County, with reference to the prisoners. But he might as well have been talking about the guards.

In an interview, Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman Bill Diamond didn’t hesitate to say “There’s not enough money” in correctional-officer pay and “not enough people who want the job.” But to solve the mandatory-overtime and turnover problem, he suggested rhetorically, “Talk to the Appropriations Committee” — the legislators who make the big decisions on the state budget.

In these days of economic downturn, however, and with officeholders seemingly unanimously pledged not to raise taxes, the Appropriations Committee, the Legislature as a whole, and Governor Baldacci are in a budget-cutting mood. Relieving the stress on guards and prisoners with more cash is unlikely to be a priority.

“We’ve been dealing with the same issues for years,” says the probable next House Speaker, current Democratic Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, referring to the mandatory overtime and the pay level at the prison. “We’ve known this has been a recipe for a problem.”

She suggested there needs to be “an independent look at the way the prison system has been operating. It’s the job of the Legislature to do that.” She mused: “This issue of hostage-taking — what leads to events like that?”

But she made no pledge to take any action to find out.

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@roadrunner.com.

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