Imprisoned facts

Will the truth escape from a break in the prison wall?
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 28, 2008

The Corrections Department had refused at
first to allow the interviews and had resisted
much of the voter-registration event.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Patrick Dorney said. “Mental, verbal, physical — I’ve seen a lot of different types of abuse.”

Dorney and I sat on the cold metal stools of a Maine State Prison dining room, putting our heads close and lowering our voices as prison guards and officials hovered not far away.

Although I had already written a lot about abuse in the prison, this May 21 interview with Dorney, a 28-year-old Portland man serving 20 years for assault, was what I had been waiting for: my first conversation with a Maine inmate in a year and a half that had not been closely monitored by prison officials.

The interview had come about because the prison was showing off 10 prisoners to a group of reporters. They had been among 142 men who had registered to vote (or, already registered, had asked for absentee ballots) in three inmate political-education sessions organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a chapter in the prison. Representatives of the Democratic, Republican, and Green Independent parties had spoken to the prisoners.

The NAACP had gone through a struggle to arrange for this voter-registration drive. The state at first had resisted much of what the NAACP had proposed for the day’s activities and had refused to allow the interviews until the press protested. “You wouldn’t believe the hoops they’ve put us through,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland NAACP chapter.

I believed it. Since late 2006, the Corrections Department — reacting to my stories about inmate abuse — has insisted on monitoring interviews with inmates and censoring questions, conditions that inmates tell me intimidate them and discourage them from telling me the full story of what life is really like in the prison. The department also transferred my primary inmate informant to a Supermax in Maryland.

But this occasion, just an hour or so long, was a rare opportunity to get uncensored testimony about claims made by disgruntled guards, ex-prisoners, and inmates who had managed to get letters to me — and, on the other hand, to try to verify what the officials had been saying.

Recently, Corrections officials had claimed they had dramatically reduced prisoner “extractions,” in which members of a body-armored SWAT team charge into a cell spraying Mace and wielding a shield to knock a prisoner flat. The department said the number of those incidents had dropped from 133 in 2005 to only two in 2007.

“I doubt that,” responded inmate Michael Chasse, looking shocked when I asked him if this could be true. “Two a year? I hear about people getting extracted all the time.”

Chasse, 33, from Lewiston, is serving 40 years for robbery and attempted escape. He had been out of the Supermax for only five months, he said, after eight years there.

He had other information that contradicted the department’s assertions. In lobbying last year for more funding and for approval to ship 125 inmates to a corporate prison in Oklahoma, Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson had told legislators that 13 gangs operated inside the prison. But there are no active gangs, Chasse maintained. A number of other prison sources had said the same.

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