Less than equal

 State officials, including prejudiced human-rights commissioners, block inmate complaints
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 2, 2009

 FEAT_prisoner_main

READ: Lance Tapley's article on gay rights in prison, "Dangerous slurs"
This story has a bias. It’s in favor of human rights for all people.

So if you think it’s proper for prison guards to call African-American inmates “niggers” and gay prisoners “fags,” then this story may not be for you. If, however, you think that prisoners deserve to be treated as human beings while they pay what the old movies call “their debt to society” — that they still have some rights despite being deprived of their freedom — then please read on.

Complaints about harassment on racial and sexual-orientation grounds within Maine’s public institutions would normally get a hearing before the Maine Human Rights Commission. An inmate at the Maine State Prison, Jonathan Dix, recently made such a complaint. He accused guards of allowing him to be called a “monkey” and “dirty nigger.”

Commission executive director Patricia Ryan and chief attorney John Gause wanted to accept Dix’s case and others like it. But for six years their gubernatorially appointed citizen commissioners, including a former prison warden, Paul Vestal — who is now the commission chairman — have blocked all inmate harassment complaints from being heard. In doing so, they have lessened prisoners' remedies against a variety of crimes such as demands for sexual favors or threats of racial violence or gay-bashing. Such misdeeds are not unknown in prison settings.

At their August 10 meeting, rejecting Ryan’s and Gause’s argument, the commissioners voted to continue to block inmate complaints. In their discussion, Vestal and Commissioner Kenneth Fredette overtly expressed prejudice against prisoners. Vestal dismissed their complaints wholesale because, he suggested, as a class of people inmates are too untrustworthy for their claims to be taken seriously.

Before 2003, prisoner human-rights complaints had been treated like those coming from any other government agency or business in Maine. But that year the commissioners accepted an argument from the attorney general’s office, then headed by Steve Rowe — who is now running for governor — that they should take away this human-rights-law avenue of redress from both state prisoners and county-jail inmates (though many of the latter haven’t even been convicted of a crime and, while awaiting trial, are presumed innocent).

Rowe’s office relied mainly on a 2002 opinion by a now-retired Maine Superior Court judge, John Atwood, a former district attorney, state commissioner of public safety, and current member of the state prison’s secretive Board of Visitors, whose chairman recently admitted the board had not been living up to its mandate to report on prison conditions (see “Secret, Co-opted, and Unaccountable” by Lance Tapley, August 13).

This year Ryan and Gause's pitch to their commissioners was that other court decisions, including those of Maine’s and Vermont’s highest courts, had trumped Atwood’s ruling. Their argument, if successful, would have restored a hearing before the commission to a broad swath of people — gays, African Americans, women, Native Americans, and other often-discriminated-against people who happen to be prisoners. The complaints had kept coming in. “We were getting concerned about some of these prison and jail cases stacking up,” Ryan said in an interview.

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