Prisoners’ support services slashed

 Baldacci’s Warehouse
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  December 23, 2008
Governor John Baldacci announced on December 16 that he had taken significant steps toward warehousing prisoners instead of rehabilitating them.

Those weren’t his words, but that was the real story, according to his critics, when Baldacci announced the latest round of state budget cuts he’s asking from the Legislature. The Corrections Department had over $1 million slashed, with 19 layoffs.

“It’s not going to be the correctional system we have now,” says associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord, looking at these and possible future cuts. She says neither she nor Commissioner Martin Magnusson “would say this improves corrections.” But they have minimized the negative effects, she believes.

Baldacci wants to close a dormitory at the Charleston minimum-security facility in Washington County. That would drop its population from 145 to 100. So 45 men would be kept in another prison or boarded in jails instead of in the rehabilitative educational, substance-abuse, psychological, and work programs at Charleston. Fifteen correctional officers would be laid off.
Baldacci, a Democrat, is also asking the Democratically controlled Legislature to approve eliminating four probation officer positions, including two that supervise juveniles; laying off two prisoner “advocates;” cutting funding for the legal help prisoners get for noncriminal problems such as divorces; eliminating a couple of programs that help women prisoners re-enter the community; and laying off the county-jail inspector.

The cuts “are really unfortunate decisions,” says Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU). Heiden calls the prisoner advocates “a real bargain for the state. They sometimes resolved disputes before they resulted in litigation — by the MCLU, for example.” He feels the short-term savings the cuts afford “will result in long-term losses” for the public.

Similarly, Barry Pretzel, a Rockland defense attorney, says cutting probation officers is penny-wise and pound-foolish: “Money could be saved by expanding probation programs. . . .There’s a huge annual saving for each prisoner who can be released on probation.”

To eliminate the prisoner advocates — one at the state prison in Warren and one who covers the whole system — a law would have to be repealed. It instructs advocates to investigate prisoner grievances, including abuse allegations. Magnusson says he’ll “have staff train inmates to do advocacy.”

Jim Burke, the Maine Law School professor who runs the prisoner-assistance clinic in Portland, says the $5000 cut in state funds for the remainder of the fiscal year may mean only prisoners at the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham would get the free legal help.

Final-year law students do the work. Nearly 800 prisoners were helped in a recent year, Burke says. The state had supplied $10,000 a year. He fears the state money has dried up for good. The program still receives funding from the Maine Bar Foundation and the law school.

Attorney Pretzel comments on what he sees as the irony of the Corrections cuts: “After spending perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars on warehousing a prisoner, the prisoner returns to society — frequently still addicted, more mentally ill, and more skilled as a criminal. Spending less on programs that would help these individuals makes no sense.”
“We’re not warehousing prisoners,” insists governor’s aide David Farmer. “We are committed to providing effective programs to inmates.”
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