At a previous committee meeting, on May 8, the controller’s office had reported it had not found evidence to support allegations by former and current employees that prison personnel had stolen state equipment and supplies or used them for private purposes, or that prison officers dipped inappropriately into a privately established fund dedicated to inmate self-improvement.
But in another report submitted to the committee on that date, the Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Evaluation and Government Oversight (OPEGA) found a troubling management-employee “culture,” and strongly advocated reform. The report zeroed in on complaints about management “intimidation of, and retaliation against, individuals attempting to raise concerns,” an atmosphere that may result in employees not reporting “unethical” situations. Employees also sometimes felt harassed or discriminated against by their superiors, the report said, and there was a general lack of respect for management. (For more on these issues, see “Falling Down,” by Lance Tapley, November 5, 2008.)
At the May 8 meeting, OPEGA’s director, Beth Ashcroft, had recommended the committee decide between two options: allow OPEGA to deepen its investigation of the need for reform, or have Corrections immediately develop a plan to reform its culture and start implementing the plan with the help of the National Institute of Corrections, a federal agency that has already done some work to improve the way the prison is run.
The committee chose the second option, and on May 22 asked OPEGA to keep tabs on the progress of reform, working with the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, which has day-to-day oversight of Corrections. The Democratic-controlled Legislature — especially the Criminal Justice Committee — has traditionally been reluctant to second-guess Democrat Baldacci’s Corrections Department.
Commissioner Magnusson responded to the committee’s concerns by noting that he had shut down one of the auto-repair programs, Saving Cars Behind Bars, in which inmates restored classic “muscle cars.” He said he was taking the controller’s report “very seriously,” promising to improve the remaining programs.
Although Magnusson appeared apologetic about the prison’s operations and determined to fix them, in an interview outside the committee room he sang a different tune. He said he saw no reason to fire or discipline anyone because of what the controller’s office and OPEGA investigators had found. Mostly, they discovered “some accounting problems,” he said, and as for the prison-culture issue, “We have dealt with it,” citing several training initiatives.
Prisoner-rights activist Ron Huber, of Rockland, said he believes it’s a mistake for the Oversight Committee to allow Corrections to oversee the reform of a prison because of the inherent conflict of interest. He said activists will monitor the reform process.
Although Moody, the prison chaplain and former politician, is hopeful Weinstein’s death will catalyze change at the prison, he doesn’t see much happening, realistically, in the short term: “It would be politically nearly impossible at the end of an eight-year-term for a governor and commissioner to initiate major change. That will be a top agenda item for the next administration.”
Lance Tapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.