Inmates’ best friend

Posted May 08, 2009, at 8:20 p.m.

MADISON, Maine — If you take a roguish cat, put it in a box for six months, feed it and keep it clean, it is still a roguish cat when you set it free. That was the problem with the way jails used to be run, says Maj. David Allen, the administrator of the new Somerset County Jail.

“We’ve learned over the years that simple incarceration doesn’t work. They will continue to re-offend,” Allen said.

But at the county’s new $30 million facility, the space for new programming has fostered a whole new attitude, Allen and Sheriff Barry DeLong said. They believe the new programs, opportunities, training and stimulation will allow inmates to re-enter society on a better footing.

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The new jail is offering everything from book club discussion groups to walking the dog. That’s right — walking the dog. Somerset County is the only county jail with its own inmates’ pet.

“At the old jail, we had zero, zippo programs,” DeLong said Thursday. “We couldn’t even have work crews, and we held high school classes in the visiting room.”

When the old jail was built more than 100 years ago, prisoners’ sentences were around 30 days. “They went in and out,” DeLong said. “There was no need for programs. Now, we have them for months.”

The new jail, built in the woods of east Madison, is bright and airy and colorful. It is set up in pods — large central areas with cells around the outside. There are chairs and tables, televisions and radios. A stack of games on the guards’ desk is inviting.

There are book clubs, computer classes, religious services, high school equivalency programs, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and substance abuse sessions.

“The inmates are lining up for the programs,” DeLong said. “They are jumping at the chance to improve themselves.”

But in one particular unit of the jail, it is Officer Max who is getting much of the attention. Max is a 10-year-old golden retriever, a shelter dog who lives and plays in the jail and is cared for petted and fawned over by the inmates.

Max’s presence has had a profound effect on the inmates in his pod. So much so that Allen is working on getting two more dogs for other pods.

“Max has made a huge difference,” DeLong said, “not just to the inmates, but to the employees as well. Max doesn’t judge you. He doesn’t care why you are here. He doesn’t talk behind your back. You come here, maybe you’ve been thrown out of your home. No job. Little hope. Max is comforting.”

In the three months that Max has lived in the jail, there has not been a single fight in the pod — which surprises both Allen and the inmates.

Inmate Robert Johnson of Waterville is one of Max’s first handlers.

“Max shows me that even though this is a bad place, the administration is giving us a chance to do something constructive,” Johnson said. “So when I get depressed, it’s nice to have a friend like Max. When you are in a place like this, he is comforting. Everything here is hard. Max is soft.”

Max is incredibly patient and even-tempered, Allen said. “We struck gold the first time out,” he added.

He sits with his orange toy on the floor, seeks out patting hands, nuzzles the leg of an inmate seeking a treat. “When we go in our rooms, he goes in his crate,” Johnson said.

“Even if you don’t have any friends, you can count on one — Max,” inmate Kasey Blodgett of Farmington said.

Inmate Matthew Grass of Skowhegan is due to be released next week. “I’m going to miss Max,” he admitted. “He’s my homey.”

Blodgett said that through the calming influence of Max, he has been able to focus on several of the new programs at the jail, including Thresholds, which is funded by the United Way of Mid-Maine. The program teaches critical thinking and decision making that will help inmates survive and thrive outside of a jail setting.

Allen said a group of inmates also is working on a garden that can help feed the population. “We’re planting potatoes next week,” he said. An art class is in the planning stages and inmates are going to paint murals on the stark cement walls.

Inmates also participate in work crews inside and outside of the jail and work in the kitchen, preparing meals for 200 people three times a day.

“These are skills they can use in everyday life,” DeLong said.

“We try to keep them as busy as possible and help them learn as much as they can,” Allen said. “We are much more strict here than many other jails but we offer more to those who are willing to behave themselves.”

All of the new programming is paid for by the inmates themselves. “We do not have a program budget,” Allen said. By marking up commissary products by 25 percent, and upping telephone call charges by 56 percent, that money can be funneled into inmate programming.

“In addition, if there is a disciplinary issue, rather than locking down an inmate, he pays a fine,” Allen said. “We are the only county in Maine that fines its inmates, one of the many innovative ways we are doing things.”

Allen said, “We are not guards anymore. We are correctional officers. Our job is to correct behavior. We don’t look just at the act the inmate committed to become incarcerated, we look at what brought that person to that point in their life. And then we go to work to help them never come back here again.”

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