Prison activist: Board chairman wrong

Letters to the Portland Editor, September 11, 2009
By PORTLAND PHOENIX LETTERS  |  September 9, 2009

I just finished reading the letter from Jon Wilson. Mr. Tapley was correct, the Board of Visitors is not living up to its mandate to represent the public's concerns about the Maine State Prison, nor is it minimally accountable in that it never filed an annual report until provoked by the scrutiny of Mr. Tapley's investigative journalism. While the Board of Visitors is not responsible for what happens inside of the Maine State Prison, they are, in fact the only public forum built into the Corrections system.

I was surprised that he argued there was little a prison administration could do to protect prisoners from each other. A Department of Corrections that does not do its best to protect people in its custody is legally negligent. From a prison management position, there is much that a prison can do to protect a prisoner from attack. In fact, most prisons go many years with no attack. The Blue Ribbon Commission in Massachusetts formed after the murder of John Geoghan made a series of very important recommendations to address prison policies and procedures, as have many other such commissions in other states. In the Maine State Prison, there have been two violent incidents in a little over a year. One must ask the necessary questions about how these tragedies can be avoided. After the hostage-taking incident in 2008, I heard how the Warden had defused the situation. As a person with a long history in prison work, I had many questions regarding basic protocol that have yet to be heard, let alone answered. I heard these same questions from women who were volunteers or program directors in the field of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Wilson's statement that "most inmates come to prison because of the choices they made" does not reflect an understanding of how racially and socially biased the criminal justice system is. The racial disparity in the prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of Native American prisoners is documented nationally at 10 times that of any other ethnic group. Maine does not keep these statistics, but anecdotal evidence indicates that virtually all charges against Native defendants result in convictions. It is rare that a middle-class person goes to prison, and even rarer that a wealthy person goes to prison. Yet, we know that drug addiction and drug-seeking behavior (crime) is perpetrated equitably across racial and class lines.

To clarify Mr. Wilson's statements about me; I was invited to meet with the Board of Visitors only one time and the only reason this invitation was issued was to present talking points against some of the proposed DOC budget cuts. The board was taking up the issue and board member Denise Altvater recommended that I be invited in to share these thoughts. I have spoken with the chair of the board one other time, after the Board of Visitors meeting informally in the parking lot on a separate issue. This does not count as second appearance before the board. The Board of Visitors meetings are public proceedings open to citizens in the state of Maine except when discussing matters made confidential by state or federal law. "Allowing" a citizen to present concerns is not an act of "grace" as Mr. Wilson suggests; it is his legal responsibility.

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