Having taught a class for the new guards at Maine State Prison for more than 10 years, I make a point of telling them that their work at the prison is a valuable community service. I also warn them that most people in the community really don’t want to know what goes on here. Soon after I started at the prison, I remember friends asking me what it was like working here. The conversation would then quickly shift to something else, and later my wife would tell me that they asked me “to be polite,” but really didn’t want to know.

Working at the prison means providing basic care for just under a thousand individuals in a total institutional setting while keeping the community, the staff and the prisoners safe. Despite periodic negative anecdotal reports, in my experience MSP staff are more typically competent professionals who like doing a good job.

Prisoners range from murderers to con artists, from drug dealers to sex offenders, from dangerous predators to nonviolent victims, from rule-abiding peace keepers to those who want to disrupt any order and break rules, from sane but cold-blooded to extremely mentally ill, from those who enjoy hurting others to those who seem to work overtime trying to harm themselves. Some are quite likable, and some are very difficult to like. Like the community, there are growing numbers of high-need elderly prisoners.

Many prisoners have no idea how to live in the community (they never have), while some have been quite successful, have trades, have paid taxes, and have otherwise contributed positively. Some will do their time and leave with little staff attention while others will require one-on-one supervision for most of their sentence. We get “system failures,” and we hear many, many terrible stories. DNA identification has demonstrated that we probably have a few who are innocent. We also have “million dollar kids” who have grown up in our communities with extensive and concerted efforts made by education and community services that still ended up prognosis: abysmal. There will always be a small percentage of failure no matter how good the system. Every prisoner has his own unique story. From my point of view, it is all intrinsically interesting and rewarding – never a dull moment.

Following a criminal conviction, people end up in prison by a one-page legal order called a “judgment and commitment” dictating the sentence. In our society, we prize personal freedom, and we set a high legal standard for the ultimate punishment (not counting those few capital punishment states), the loss of freedom by incarceration. Except for extremely violent or heinous crimes, individuals usually earn their way to MSP by repeated criminal activities and gradually increased sentences with each subsequent conviction.

Again, the primary job of the prison staff is to provide the prisoners a basic standard of care in safety for the period of time they are incarcerated. We like to say the prisoners are here as punishment, not for punishment. The standard of care is prescribed by laws, legal precedents, policies and rules developed over many years. This can mean physical and medical care that is better than it is for many in our community, especially the elderly; universal health care is a right in prison.

Keeping prisoners safe and healthy in Maine, with the smallest prison population and lowest incarceration rate of all the states, costs roughly $40,000 a year per prisoner, reflective of the lack of the economy of scale of larger states. This is comparable to a year at one of Maine’s best private colleges. Like many things in our society, citizens want the services of the prison, but they complain about having to pay for it. The size of the prison population is determined by judges, and maybe the actual cost of incarceration should be calculated at sentencing like a fiscal note. Pragmatically, locking up people should be essentially for public safety – but that is another discussion.

There are many myths about prisons that are perpetuated in the public mind by media and misinformed individuals. One myth is that the prison is a dangerous place with routine assaults, stabbings, rapes and strong-arming. While I can’t say these things don’t occur at MSP, I have never felt afraid for my safety. I have felt afraid at times in the community, and I can also say that it is significantly more dangerous for staff and patients in psychiatric hospitals.

Another myth is that prisoners are routinely brutalized by guards. Over the years I have seen many correctional officers walked off the premises and subsequently fired because of violating the use-of-force policies. A competent guard has good people-management skills, compassion and an ability to appropriately enforce rules. Keep in mind, a correctional officer supervises between 56 and 64 inmates in each housing unit by themselves, which is a lot of responsibility. When they say “lock-in!” it needs to happen immediately.

Another myth currently of local focus is that prisoners in the segregation unit are held in solitary confinement. I can tell you that while physical contact may not be allowed, there is plenty of social interaction and no “solitary” or isolation anywhere at MSP.

Prisoners are placed there for being a danger to others, for their own safety, or for significant rule violations. They all have different capabilities to cope with this lock-down status. Some feel safer there and actually prefer it (they’ve checked in and won’t go back to general population despite staff efforts), while others with trouble coping, such as those who are chronically mentally ill, are housed where they can receive better care from mental health staff.

Advocates for the mentally ill have been all over this issue in recent years, and the prison has accommodated. However, lock-down in segregation remains the maximum punishment for rule violations in prison, along with loss of good time, and few prisoners would say they like it. The effectiveness of segregation placement to change institutional behavior is debatable, and efforts are being made to develop programs to change behavior while prisoners are in segregation.

The key to long-term reduction of prison cost is re-entry, the process by which a prisoner re-enters society. Most prisoners will eventually return to their communities, despite any public sentiments that they should live elsewhere. While I am unaware of much valid data on recidivism, especially in Maine, it is clear that too many come back.

There has been a growing body of knowledge about programs that work (as demonstrated by studies), and gradually these programs are being instituted. The progress toward implementing these programs, indeed the overall ability of correctional facilities to care for inmates and keep them safe, is being compromised by currently unavoidable budget cuts, along with most other state services. The hope is that we will be able to get back on track as the economy improves. Ideally, individuals should leave prison better than when they came or at the very least no worse. Could a better job be done with this? Of course it could.

It is another myth that the prison does not welcome scrutiny by the public. I often see tours through the prison — the state’s advocacy groups have all been in at various times. There are many active volunteers in education, religious activities and other programs, and more would always be welcome. And the prison is always looking for good people to work here. Keep in mind if you do come to tour, volunteer or work, everyone’s safety depends on the ability of MSP staff to maintain order and security. After all, it is a prison.

James M. Thomas lives in Camden and is a licensed clinical social worker on the Mental Health Unit at Maine State Prison. His opinions are not representative of the Maine Department of Corrections.