Maine Department of Corrections
Policy of silencing prisoners violates federal court order
For the past year and a half, freelance reporter Lance Tapley has been writing a series of articles for the Portland Phoenix on abusive conditions in the Maine prison system. Among other things, Tapley’s work led to the attempted silencing of his principal source: Deane Brown, a convicted burglar, was locked up in a maximum-security, solitary-confinement Supermax unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where he had virtually no access to the outside world. When even that move proved ineffective at muzzling Brown, prison officials this past November moved him to Maryland, where he remains to this day.
That alone might have been enough to earn the Maine Department of Corrections a Muzzle Award. But it turns out that the prison system’s actions were not only censorious — they may also have violated federal consent decrees. Recently, Tapley discovered that, in the early 1970s, a federal judge in Portland ordered state corrections officials to permit reporters to interview prisoners, to allow prisoners to write to reporters, and to grant prisoners a hearing before transferring them to another facility.
Those federal orders are apparently still in force. Yet even after Tapley informed state officials about his discovery, they continued to stonewall his requests for access. The state’s attorney general, Steven Rowe, refused to say whether he believed the order was still binding.
As Tapley himself acknowledges, prisoners are not necessarily the most credible sources of information regarding what goes on behind penitentiary walls. But that doesn’t mean prison officials have a right to cover up allegations of abuse by denying inmates the ability to speak out about the conditions under which they are being held.
According to Neville Woodruff, a retired lawyer who worked on the lawsuits that led to the three consent decrees, those orders remain in force — and the Department of Corrections, by not following them, may be in contempt of federal court.
Adds Maine Civil Liberties Union legal director Zachary Heiden: “Thirty-five years ago, the state of Maine agreed that prisoners have rights. Those rights still protect inmates and protect reporters concerned about the operation of our public prisons.”
Rhode Island Governor backs no-warrant investigations
Earlier this year, a remarkable bill was filed in the Rhode Island General Assembly. Supported by the state-police superintendent, Colonel Brendan Doherty, it would allow the state attorney general, as well as state and local police, to examine anyone’s private Internet, phone, bank, and credit-card records without first seeking a court warrant.
It’s a piece of legislation that Rhode Island officials are treating like a bad check. Governor Donald Carcieri’s spokesman says Carcieri won’t support it unless he can be assured that privacy rights would be sufficiently protected. The bill’s sponsor, State Representative Richard Singleton, a Cumberland Republican, says he’s not too thrilled with the legislation, but agreed to file it on behalf of — yes — Carcieri.
A Providence Journal editorial got it exactly right in observing that “ultimately, the governor is responsible for this bad legislation” — especially given its close resemblance to a proposal he supported in 2006.