Warden Patricia Barnhart’s office walls at the Maine State Prison on Cushing Road evoke her past journeys and present occupation. Posters of European destinations share space with half-hull models, cutting boards and furniture that are made in the prison and sold at the Prison Showroom on Route 1 in Thomaston.

Barnhart arrived in Warren over the Thanksgiving weekend last year and took up her position Dec. 1 after the departure of former Warden Jeffrey Merrill.

Early career leads to change of goals

“Originally, I was going to work with juveniles,” Barnhart said Aug. 30.

With that intention, Barnhart received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. Her career plans changed after graduation. Jobs in the field were limited and she took a position as a corrections officer, eventually spending 20 years in the Michigan corrections system, including a stint in the probation and parole division.

“When you come out of college you don’t really know who you are,” she said. Barnhart’s last position in Michigan was at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, where she began as deputy warden and served a year and a half as acting warden.

“It’s a far cry from the environment in which I was raised,” she said. Barnhart described her home state as one dominated by the automotive industry and her small, close-knit family as having a long history in that field. While she has been traveling since a trip to Italy at the age of 16, Barnhart said she had never lived outside of her home state before coming to Maine.

“I had a solid upbringing,” Barnhart said. “I knew I was fortunate where others were not and wanted to make a difference.”

“It’s been an evolving process to find what my skill set is, what I have to offer,” she said. “I believe in giving back.”

“I seem to be a sounding board for people,” Barnhart said. She said she is continually upgrading her training, and while she has not received any advanced academic degrees, she has presented papers at national conferences.

“I believe in going through open doors,” Barnhart said. She said the posters in her office were reflections of her belief that the world is large and there is more to life than the limits that have brought many to serve sentences at the Warren facility.

“It’s easy to get trapped in your own world,” Barnhart said.

Prison life offers choices

In addition to a formal education program sponsored by Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation, prisoners at MSP are allowed to participate in what Barnhart referred to as social organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, craft and music programs, civic groups and fitness activities.

“Those doing absolutely nothing are the minority,” Barnhart said. She said that, relative to the problems of drugs on the streets, drug abuse was not overwhelming in the prison population.

For most prisoners, she said, the average day begins with a head count and breakfast. Many participate in school or work-related activities, and health service calls punctuate the day. Visitors must make appointments in advance and meet security guidelines, she said. More head counts and meals make up much of the rest of the prison day.

Inmates are allowed to purchase televisions and cable connection is supplied through a prisoner benefit fund to which inmates may contribute. There is no access to the Internet, but programs are in place for those who are studying for a general educational diploma, or GED. For further study and research, there is a library and inmates can request additional materials.

“What we’re doing is attempting to socialize or breed a sense of responsibility to community and to self,” Barnhart said. “We’re trying to teach them a sense of pride and ownership. This is their home.” She said prisoners needed to overcome lowered expectations from both themselves and those they would return to after completing their sentences.

Inmates plan for future while in prison

One difference between Michigan and Maine that Barnhart mentioned was the lack of a system of parole or supervision that follows former inmates after release from prison.

“We’re doing all the work while they’re in prison,” she said. Prisoners at Maine State Prison are offered opportunities to learn how to write resumes and fill out job applications.

“They’re working through the ‘felony or no felony’ question and how to deal with 10 years of being out of circulation,” Barnhart said. “With the economy the way it is, there’s a lot of folks out of work that don’t have any convictions.”

She said most of those imprisoned at MSP knew they had done something wrong and her challenges came primarily from about five percent of the prison population. Those few, she said, were very likely to return.

For the majority, she said, the greatest hurdle is the transition back to society. She said prison personnel needed to help exiting inmates align the services and resources they would need on the outside, such as a place to live and an adequate support network, in order to “keep leaving from being a setup.”

She said she felt successful when former inmates succeeded after release.

Recently a man who had completed his sentence at the Bolduc Correctional Facility approached Barnhart in a store and asked if she remembered him.

“I did,” she said. “He was making it. He had a job and was buying his groceries. He had a stable place to live.” She said the man had developed a close relationship with a mentor who was helping him navigate a world of debit cards, digital communications and other technological changes that had come about while he was incarcerated.

Aside from keeping them safe while in prison, she said prison staff had a responsibility to ensure that even those who appeared to be likely to return had opportunities to participate in programs that might change their lives.

“You’ve still got to have hope,” she said. “You don’t know what you’re saying today that pushes them back from being one of that five percent.”

Barnhart said restorative justice programs had the potential to bridge the gap between convicted criminals and their victims, but that meetings between these parties were potentially volatile.

“It’s an emotionally charged relationship,” she said. She said the results of such efforts depended on what people were seeking.

“Understanding, maybe. Forgiveness, maybe not,” she said. “Many of these prisoners couldn’t do it.” She said efforts to reduce the chance of future criminal activities were worth the time and expense involved.

“At the end of the day we’re all victims,” Barnhart said. She said all citizens paid more for goods and services because of the costs of crime prevention, law enforcement and incarceration.

Barnhart said some of the costs of housing and caring for inmates were recovered through the farming program at the Bolduc unit and other jobs prisoners did inside the prison.

Warden defends quality of staff

“We do not have solitary confinement,” Barnhart said. She said that term conjured images that were far from the segregation practiced at MSP, where corrections officers and other staff made rounds “perpetually throughout the units.”

“I make rounds,” she said. “Health care makes rounds. Laundry makes rounds, supervisors make rounds.”

She said that, while a prisoner such as convicted kidnapper Michael Chasse might be in court-ordered segregation throughout his incarceration in order to keep him away from the general prison population, most were there between 10 and 30 days for improper behavior while in prison.

Barnhart said MSP is affiliated with the American Correctional Association and the National Institute of Corrections, which provide professional development and consulting services, technical assistance and accreditation for correctional facilities.

“My staff are open and amenable to [learning from] any state that can offer insight on best practices,” she said. She described the MSP staff who greeted her arrival in Warren as eager, open, welcoming, excited and optimistic.

“Those are the people I work with every day,” Barnhart said. She said she had not experienced the issues that made headlines before her arrival, but that there was always room for improvement in any situation.

“This is a tough job these people do,” she said. “It’s not for everybody and certainly not for the faint of heart.” She said her staff wanted people to understand the work they did, and that, after media portrayals of corrections officers’ behavior as “barbaric,” legislators working on LD 1611, An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners, were surprised by the staff they met at hearings.

“What makes a good officer is being firm but fair, approachable and directive,” she said. Barnhart said this meant knowing when to watch a situation and when to step in and take action.

“A lot of [what we do] is teaching social skills,” she said. “They’re not dealing with folks that have committed trivial crimes.” She said some inmates did not have the skills or willingness to coexist with fellow prisoners.

A bad guard, she said, was one who used the position improperly.

“We’re not here to further penalize prisoners,” Barnhart said. “They were sent to us. That is their penalty.”

“I can’t run the prison from this desk,” Barnhart said. She said she didn’t get to visit the population as often as she’d like but that she left the administrative wing to get inside about once a week. When she tours the facility, she tries to vary her visits to see all the departments where inmates are working, she said. She also meets formally with inmates in the context of civic groups, such as the NAACP, longtimers and veterans groups.

Budget cuts, rural location cause staffing problems

Barnhart said that privately run prisons had a place in states that couldn’t afford to operate facilities with public funds, and that MSP contracted with private agencies for health care and mental health services.

“At the end of the day, we have the same goals and objectives,” she said. “Protection of the public using the least restrictive, most cost-effective means possible and creating a positive, constructive environment for prisoners and staff.”

Barnhart said that more corrections officers were needed at MSP, and that she was advertising those positions.

“This is not a major metropolis,” she said. Some of her officers live more than an hour from work and she said the lack of urban amenities made it harder to fill vacancies. She said she needed more corrections officers than are currently funded in the department’s budget, but that budget constraints in Maine and across the country forced a stronger relationship between corrections administrators and the larger community.

“It has bred an environment to bridge relationships,” she said.

When asked to comment on LD 1611, which eventually passed as a resolve directing the Department of Corrections to review due process procedures and ensure transparency in policies regarding the placement of special management prisoners, Barnhart said the prison and those who worked there were dedicated to doing the right thing for the right reasons.

“I don’t need a law to tell me what to do,” she said.

“Nobody in my administration is going to tell you that we are perfect,” Barnhart said. “We’re striving to be better than we were yesterday. How else do you grow?”

“If I set my bar at my feet, how surprised are you that I’m constantly tripping over it?”

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.