Secret, unaccountable, and co-opted

If the prison Board of Visitors had done its job, it might have helped prevent several recent tragedies
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 17, 2009

monkey main

The state prison in Warren has been hammered in recent months by an inmate murder and other violence, a prisoner hunger strike, legislative investigations exposing mismanagement and poor guard morale, and a request by human-rights groups for a federal probe of prisoner mistreatment. Most recently, the state Corrections commissioner, Martin Magnusson, told legislators that budget cuts have reduced staff to a precariously low level.

Many prison problems have persisted or gotten worse for years. So why hasn’t the Maine State Prison Board of Visitors, the blue-ribbon panel of five citizens appointed by the governor to oversee the way the prison is run, corrected at least some of the problems? This is a recurrent question among people concerned with prison issues.

To look into this question is to have a glimpse into a black hole of officialdom. The Board of Visitors, first set up 78 years ago, is composed of officials who generally meet in secret and rarely — if ever — challenge the administrators they oversee. The board didn’t even get around to writing and giving to the Legislature its legally required annual reports for the past four years until last month, after the Phoenix asked to see them (see sidebar, “Miraculous Appearances”). 

To co-opt: To neutralize or win over through assimilation into an established group. www.thefreedictionary.com 

Prison warden resigns

Amid the turmoil swirling around the Maine State Prison, Warden Jeffrey Merrill announced his resignation at an August 10 prison-staff meeting. The state Corrections Department said he would be given a new job leading the department's energy-conservation efforts. Commissioner Martin Magnusson will take over day-to-day prison management, though Merrill, who had been warden for 14 years, will remain at the prison for several months to help in the transition to a new warden.

The department has been strapped for cash, but deputy commissioner Denise Lord said Merrill would be paid with funds from “a vacant position.” She said she didn't know what his salary would be. Asked if Magnusson had asked Merrill to leave, she replied: "He and the commissioner have been talking for several months now about options for him." She said Merrill was "ready to take on new responsibilities."

The board’s chairman, Jon Wilson, of Brooklin, a magazine publisher and member for eight years, claims his group has “made a difference” in prison management, but in a phone interview is awkwardly unable to cite an example. Another board member, John Atwood, of Sheepscot, hung up on this reporter when he was asked to cite a board accomplishment. Atwood, a former Superior Court judge and state commissioner of public safety, has been on the board for six years. 

Denise Altvater, who runs a youth group at the Passamaquoddy reservation in Perry and was appointed last year, refused to talk with this reporter. Ed Courtenay, of Warren, a former prison guard supervisor who has served on the board for 13 years, crisply says he sees the board’s role as limited and expresses deference to prison officials. The woman who had been the fifth member, Kendra Bryant, a Rockland psychologist, resigned earlier this year after two years on the board, and has not been replaced.

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