Prisoner advocates would like the new Corrections commissioner to strengthen his reform of the Maine State Prison by giving more care to the many mentally ill prisoners he is releasing from often-lengthy solitary confinement into the prison's general population.
In the past the 132-cell isolation unit or "supermax" was usually full, but now is down to about 50 inmates, says Commissioner Joseph Ponte. He has agreed with prison reformers that extended isolation tends to worsen or create inmate mental problems.
The releases from solitary are "a huge and wonderful step," says Maine Civil Liberties Union executive director Shenna Bellows. But she adds: "The next step is to ensure that prisoners with mental-health problems get the help they need."
With the $625,000 a year saved by recent Corrections Department staff reductions, Bellows suggests, "one option might be to increase the number of mental-health staff." (For more on the reforms, see "Top Prison Officials Fired," June 17, and "Reform Comes to the Supermax," May 27.)
Judy Garvey, of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), also strongly applauds the depopulating of the supermax (officially, the Special Management Unit), but notes that prisoners have written her with concerns about possible problems with inmates released from it, mentally ill or not.
Garvey is concerned that guards be quickly trained in how to properly administer the informal punishments that Ponte is requiring in many cases to replace the "ineffective and expensive practice," Garvey says, of throwing unruly inmates into the supermax. MPAC has representatives on a Corrections Department committee to bring this about. She anticipates "the training will be operational quite soon."
Amid the changes, Garvey says a prison employee told her the Warren prison is "shorthanded." The longtime security chief and deputy warden, James O'Farrell, says he was among those dismissed because he had protested inadequate staffing.
Adding to his department's shakeup, Ponte is shifting inmates and officials from prison to prison. An inmate wrote Garvey that the Maine State Prison staff is "pissed off" with all the changes.
Ponte responds that the prison is going through an "adjustment phase," adding, "There's a learning curve for the staff." While recognizing the dismissals made some employees nervous about their future, he says the positions of those let go — including four guard captains at Warren — were unnecessary.
Ponte agrees there's a need for "a more effective mental-health intervention" at the prison, and he says the department has "some funds" that can be used for this. Plus, he says, he wants more done for prisoners in recreation and "social" programs.
His department clinical director, psychologist Joseph Fitzpatrick, thinks more money for mental-health staff is needed because of "the sheer volume and acuity" of mentally ill inmates, with 40 to 50 percent of prisoners on psychiatric medications.
Ponte says the cost of additional care for mentally ill prisoners hasn't been determined: "Some things will be at no cost; we will use current staff in different roles, and we will see what additional cost remains after we get through that process."
As for the risks of putting mentally ill former supermax inmates in with the general population, Fitzpatrick cautions that "mental illness itself is not a risk factor for violence." The risk, he says, is that their illness won't be properly treated.
Ponte says that when he walks through the prison two or three times a week inmates tell him they appreciate the changes. One inmate reported to Garvey that the shrunken supermax now has few disruptions, a big change from the past.