Prison myth No. 5: 'You don’t understand what we are up against'

By Stan Moody | Feb 17, 2010

Maximum security prisons are designed for three purposes — to keep prisoners safe, to protect the public and to carry out a strategy of corrections. The problem arises when administrators and staff cross that thin line of adding punishment to their responsibilities and make personal judgments on the basis of a person's crime. Punishment is the role of the courts; safekeeping and rehabilitation are the roles of prisons.

Who could object to the sparkling, antiseptic Maine State Prison in Warren, where prisoners queue up and respond in brisk fashion and those who fail to do so disappear down to segregation for an attitude adjustment along with the more incorrigible? It has all the appearance of order and efficiency. It speaks volumes, however, that the number of inmates in segregation at any one time are roughly the same as the number in the prison industries program designed to teach job skills.

It looks so great, with flowers and fresh-mowed grass in the summer and fresh paint everywhere, that it is almost impossible to understand why anyone would think otherwise. It has, however, shifted much of the human element over to process and procedure — rats in a maze. It diminishes humanity.

The Department of Corrections asserts that fewer than 20 inmates are in solitary confinement at any one time within the Special Management Unit. The remaining 110 are in segregation there, implying that 23 hours of daily lockup anywhere for months at a time with no official end in sight can be anything other than callous abuse. Segregation offers the ability to be heard through the cell next door or through an electrical outlet raceway up through the cell wall.

There are three, two-story wings in the SMU. The A wing is the mental health wing, divided into A1 and A2, with one housing the most severely mentally-ill prisoners and the other housing the less severely ill. The B wing is for the most incorrigible offenders. The B1 corridor is reserved for the worst offenders in the B wing. The B1 corridor (B117) was where they found Sheldon Weinstein, a 64-year-old, wheelchair-bound inmate, on April 24, 2009, bled out from a beating and being housed there "for his own protection."

C wing is for the last of the stretch in segregation before going back out into general population for another whack at the system. C wing also houses protective-custody inmates (sex offenders and marked prisoners) who are in segregation for disciplinary purposes.

Every attempt to advocate for prison reform or pass legislation intended to correct some perceived human rights violation runs into four objections. First, if the information comes from a prisoner or a prisoner's family member, it is presumed to be suspect, and reasonably so. Second, Department of Corrections officials are quick to say that whatever they do there, it is "consistent with widely accepted practice."

Weinstein's widow, having been told her husband died of "natural causes," will, I suspect, take serious issue with the notion that his treatment was "consistent with widely accepted practice." She buried his ashes, only to find out six weeks after the autopsy that his death had been a homicide. Nobody had bothered to tell her anything other than how to retrieve his ashes.

Third, corrections officials point out that whatever is happening in Maine is different from prisons everywhere else because the Maine State Prison is a country club by comparison. Last, and the subject of this article, "You do not understand what we are up against," popularly characterized in song as "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen!"

It is a great defense. It cuts the legs out from under any abstract idea put forward by citizens and legislators, and it maintains the status quo by building a fear-based culture that keeps the public nervous and detached. I have been there during a sanitized legislative tour, and I can say without reservation that legislators have no idea of the human interaction encountered within the system on a daily basis. Yet they are charged with passing laws that impact tens of thousands of lives and are rapidly building corrections toward the largest budget item in the state.

Some of the most brilliant people it has been my pleasure to know are prisoners there. On the other hand, some 40 percent are illiterate, and some 80 percent have substance-abuse problems

What the Department of Corrections is up against has far less to do with the danger it likes to talk about and more to do with fear on the part of staff — job insecurity and too little focus on the pubic good that can be had by reducing the 58 percent rate of repeat offenses and probation violations in Maine.

Corrections has been saddled with the leftovers from a mental health system in Maine that has broken down, it is true. In order to fix these problems, however, officials need the public input that they will never get so long as they are committed to stonewalling every effort to understand and improve the system.

Is it possible that it is the Maine Department of Corrections itself that does not realize what it is up against? The winds of change are blowing. The public has had enough of paying enormous sums of money to hide away the failures of education and human services. Legislative leaders are fast becoming yesterday's news, thanks to term limits and public disdain of big egos.

There is little to fear at the Maine State Prison so long as all people — staff and prisoners alike — are treated as fellow human beings, firmly and fairly but consistently.

I invite the Department of Corrections to join this growing movement toward prison reform in Maine, admit where it has failed and keep its fingerprints off every attempt to initiate change.

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