Less than equal

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 2, 2009

But at the August meeting it was a representative of the new AG, Janet Mills — a Democrat like Rowe — who won the day with a memo that prisoners should not be able to file harassment complaints, citing, once again, Atwood’s decision. Both the AG's and Atwood’s view of why prisoners don’t qualify for a hearing rely on a technical point: that a prison is not the type of building in which the law prohibits such persecution. But, politically, Mills’s argument had the practical effect of supporting Vestal’s and Fredette’s bias.

Given their clearly expressed prejudice, it would be hard to see how the commissioners, who are supposed to play a judge-like role in discrimination cases, could give a prisoner a fair hearing anyway.

‘Hostile environments’

Under the Maine Human Rights Act, discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental disability, color, national origin, or ancestry is illegal in Maine’s government (and many other) buildings because, in the law’s language, they are “public accommodations,” and racial or sexual slurs, for example, may create an illegal “hostile environment” in such places. (Under a separate provision of the law, disabled people are protected in all “public entities” including prisons and jails.) The commission works to resolve discrimination complaints involving — besides public accommodations — employment, education, housing, credit, and place-name issues. If a resolution to a valid complaint isn’t reached, the commission or the complainant may sue the perpetrators in court. The commission usually initiates between five and ten lawsuits a year.

Minority-group inmates and their advocates for years have protested bias by guards and corrections administrators. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, has had a long-running battle with the state Department of Corrections over alleged racial slurs by prison guards and the ability of the Maine State Prison NAACP chapter to have meetings and raise money. Recently a bisexual prisoner at the Warren prison complained to the Phoenix about guards using words like “fag” — a slur that, by identifying an inmate as gay, he said, could prove dangerous in a maximum-security prison. (See sidebar, “Dangerous Slurs.”) In the past, Indians had complained of various expressions of prejudice including being forbidden to have sweat lodges, smudging ceremonies, and other religious practices.

(After much effort on the part of Native Americans and their advocates — including a lawsuit and legislative action — the prison in recent years has allowed sweat lodges and other ceremonies. And very recently, after removing Warden Jeffrey Merrill and taking the reins of the prison, state Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson says he’s allowing inmate organizations to become more active, including the NAACP chapter.)

Prisoners may still go to the Maine Human Rights Commission to complain about prison or jail employment, education, and disability discrimination, and they have the option of directly filing lawsuits opposing harassment and other civil-rights violations under the Maine Human Rights Act. But doing this or filing federal civil-rights lawsuits can be costly, lengthy, and require legal expertise that many inmates don’t have (because of lack of funds most prisoners have to represent themselves). In federal lawsuits, prisoners also have to overcome many procedural hurdles as a result of a mid-1990s law signed by President Bill Clinton that was designed to make it harder for them to go to court.

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