I could cite many examples of the difficulty in reporting to the Maine public what goes on behind the cement and bureaucratic walls of the public’s prison system — especially, in reporting brutal practices. I will give just a few.
The guard and the suicide
One example involves Ryan Rideout’s suicide. He had been sick for a long time, threatening to jump from a high building in Bangor three times in three weeks in 2004. Since his death, several Supermax prisoners have made disturbing allegations, in letters to me, about a guard taunting him — that he didn’t “have the balls” to kill himself, as his friend Jesus Rodriguez, 22, quoted the guard.
Rodriguez, who has a little more than a year left on a robbery conviction, is convincing and touching in his sincerity when he describes the tragic death of Ryan “Ryno” Rideout: “Because of Ryno’s death I tried to kill myself. . . . I miss the jokes and to hear him laugh and the talks about what he was going to do when he gets out in six or five months and because of a c/o [correctional officer] he ended his life. Nothing has been done to the c/o. He still works here and still gives inmates a hard time. . . . I will always love and miss you, Ryno.”
Another inmate says, “I saw the whole thing happen and have had trouble sleeping.” He alleges that the same guard “told inmate Rideout, when he was hanging from his sprinkler in SMU B-wing Room 114, that he could do better than that. His exact words were, ‘Come on, Rideout, you can do better than that’.”
In 2005, as recorded on prison documents obtained by the Phoenix, Deane Brown filed a grievance with the prison administration involving the same guard. After a Supermax inmate had “cut his arms [and] was taken out on a stretcher,” Brown alleged that the guard had told a sergeant “one down, 49 to go” (there were 50 inmates in that wing of the Supermax). The officer who reviews grievances later wrote to Brown, “Your allegation that a staff member made an inappropriate comment has been confirmed. The comment was unprofessional and corrective action has been taken.”
The Corrections Department won’t say if the guard is being investigated in the Rideout suicide or even confirm his name, because, as associate commissioner Denise Lord puts it, “I can’t comment on personnel matters.” Efforts to contact this guard — named by the Supermax prisoners — were not successful by press time, so the Phoenix is withholding his name.
A sergeant’s complaints
Here is another personnel matter the Corrections Department won’t comment on: a transcription of a frank exit interview of an articulate prison guard sergeant, George Mele, is available on the Internet. A guard gave the transcript to Deane Brown, who gave it to WRFR, the radio station to which he contributed in Rockland. Mele complains vigorously about the prison’s “corruption,” low morale, nepotism, “retaliation for reporting wrongs,” forced extra shifts and overtime, low pay, poor leadership, inferior food, and administrative incompetence.
The authenticity of this exit interview has been confirmed by Commissioner Martin Magnusson, but he won’t discuss it. Mele, who now works for Magnusson’s probation and parole wing, won’t return phone calls. This information has been put in my file marked “The Guards’ Side of the Story,” for a future article, but you can read the interview at //www.penbay.org/WRFR/prisonproject/gmeleexit.html.
A hard line from the outset
The stonewalling behavior of corrections officials is not just a reaction to what I have written. When I began my research last year, I immediately encountered barriers. The intervention of the governor’s office, which is always more sensitive to public opinion than any other part of state government, was necessary to get a significant response from the corrections bureaucracy to my requests to obtain basic facts about the Supermax and to arrange interviews with prisoners.
Officials at the Maine State Prison itself have a very hard approach to the press: almost total lack of cooperation, unless you are a reporter who rewrites their press releases. The Corrections Department headquarters in Augusta had a softer approach, at first. Magnusson and Lord gave me lengthy interviews at the beginning of what would become this series. With a thoughtful and moderate demeanor, they appeared to agree with all the criticisms of the Supermax — from Deane Brown, from other prisoners, and from critics outside the prison. (See “Reforming the Supermax,” November 18, 2005, by Lance Tapley.)
The criticisms were of conditions and practices far worse than what Brown endured recently while on suicide watch. They included “extractions” of prisoners from their cells that were indistinguishable from beatings, lengthy stays of naked prisoners in a medieval-looking “restraint” chair, mad prisoners (in both senses of the word) coating the Supermax by throwing their feces and urine at guards, frequent self-mutilations, and suicide attempts. (See “Torture in the Supermax,” November 11, 2005, by Lance Tapley.)