“Things are as tough at the prison right now as I’ve seen them in a long time,” state Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on July 29. He spoke about the consequences of the staff cuts that the 915-inmate, 410-employee Maine State Prison in Warren has had to endure. And he spoke with an intensity that, for a normally undemonstrative bureaucrat, amounted to an outburst: “Our priority right now is getting by the day and preparing for tomorrow.”
The budget cut of 16 guards that Governor John Baldacci and the Legislature forced on the prison in the last legislative session required a move to 12-hour shifts, Magnusson noted. Some staff are “very unhappy” with this change because it results in far less overtime pay (though it saves the state money), and longer shifts often cause “family issues.”
In the last year and a half, 85 positions were slashed from the prison system as a whole, and 65 vacancies went unfilled. Under the latest two-year budget, 65 more will have to remain unfilled. On top of that, he reminded the committee, “We’ve taken cuts for 10 years.” (Recently, at Magnusson’s urging, the Baldacci administration agreed to fill 14 guard vacancies at the prison.)
“I’m feeling we have cut as much as we can,” he said in an interview at the end of the meeting. “I don’t know where we’d go from here.”
To add to the employee stress, the April murder of sex offender Sheldon Weinstein — apparently by other inmates but with possible responsibility on the part of staff — has produced “the most intensive, extensive staff and policy review” he’s ever seen, Magnusson told the legislators. The incident has cast “a major pall over the facility.” He said he hoped the prison’s review would be finished within two weeks. The state police are conducting a criminal investigation.
The prison has also experienced other recent inmate-on-inmate violence, a hostage-taking last year, a 2006 inmate suicide involving guard misconduct, and state investigations of poor staff morale and potential staff corruption. Human-rights groups have asked for a federal investigation of prisoner treatment. Many prison observers pin much of the blame for the institution’s troubles on budget cuts.
But when Magnusson was asked by a legislator, “What can we do as a committee?” the commissioner lost his intensity and, looking tired, muttered, “communicate” and “respond how you need to.”
For his budget, Magnusson is dependent not only on legislators but also on his boss, Baldacci, an economically conservative Democrat. The governor and leaders in both parties have responded to recession-induced declining tax revenues with huge budget cuts across many state departments.
The plight of the prison, however, points toward “a fundamental problem” in budgeting, said Representative Richard Sykes of Harrison, a Republican committee member, in an interview. Instead of across-the-board cuts, he said, state government needs to prioritize its functions. The safety of inmates and staff at the prison is a priority, he said.
But not all legislators seem equally concerned.
Earlier in the meeting, when Jon Wilson, chairman of an official citizen group that oversees the prison, the Board of Visitors, was bemoaning the effects of the budget cuts on staff morale, Representative Stephen Hanley, a Gardiner Democrat, responded unsympathetically: “If you think they’re bad now, it’s going to get worse.”
When Governor Baldacci was asked for his comment on Magnusson’s plea, his office responded not much more sympathetically: “The governor knows about the challenges in Corrections as in other departments and is confident in the leadership he has in place to develop solutions to those challenges, given severe budget constraints.”