State prison reeling from budget cuts

Posted July 29, 2009, at 10:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Repeated budget cuts are causing serious morale and staffing problems at the Maine State Prison and could worsen if state funding to corrections programs takes additional hits, prison and state officials told lawmakers Wednesday.

“I don’t believe we can safely make any more cuts in corrections,” said Martin Magnusson, commissioner of the Department of Corrections. “We have been making cuts for 10 years and I am seeing the results every day.”

Wednesday’s hearing by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee focused largely on the Maine State Prison in Warren, although the state’s other correctional facilities face similar staffing and financial challenges.

In a report presented to the committee, members of the Maine State Prison’s board of visitors identified 14 areas of “persistent concern over the years.” The board, which is composed of volunteer members nominated by the governor, does not have the authority to make changes but is charged with acting as a sort of liaison among prison staff, inmates, the administration and the Legislature.

“While almost every issue we raise here has a direct link to the overarching problems of budget and finance, we also recognize that this challenge presents opportunities for creative thinking, and we raise these in order to invite and encourage such thinking,” the report says.

At the top of the list of concerns were low morale and inadequate staffing levels among both security personnel and programming staff. Tight budgets, position eliminations or vacancies and mandated overtime have all led to corrosive morale problems, according to the report.

Compounding the problem, prison staff members often feel as though they are doing “invisible work” because, unlike state troopers and other law enforcement officers, they are out of sight and mind for many Mainers, board chairman Jon Wilson told the committee.

“What most people don’t realize is that there is a lot of heroic work that is being done every day inside state prisons,” Wilson said.

Board members also raised concerns about mental health services and the availability of programs geared toward helping inmates improve themselves and thereby reducing the odds of ending up back behind bars soon after being released.

Staff at the Maine State Prison, which has about 400 employees and an inmate capacity of roughly 900, recently switched to 12-hour shifts because of staffing shortages. While that has substantially reduced overtime — dropping from an average of 1,700 hours per week to about 300 — it has not been easy for the staff to adjust to the new system.

The short staffing, high turnover and budgetary problems have cast a pall over the workers at the prison, Magnusson said.

“Things are as tough in the prison right now as I have seen them in a long time,” he told lawmakers. “We have to work through them, and part of that is the OPEGA report.”

The report, which was released by the Office of Program Evaluation and Accountability, or OPEGA, recommended changes to improve relations and communication among staff and administrators at the prison.

There was relatively little talk on Wednesday about some of the high-profile incidents at the prison in recent months, which included the April slaying of inmate Sheldon Weinstein. Magnusson said Weinstein’s death prompted what he called the most intensive staff review he has seen. That review is nearly complete, and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

In the wake of Weinstein’s slaying, civil liberties groups also have called on the federal Department of Justice to look into the treatment of inmates and other conditions at the prison, which also has been the site of a recent hunger strike and stabbing.

Magnusson said the Baldacci administration this week approved the filling of 14 vacant positions in the prison, which was welcomed by both lawmakers and interested parties in the audience.

Alysia Melnick, the public policy counsel for the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said she was glad to hear comments from prison and jail administrators that they are trying to move away from “warehousing” inmates who don’t really need to be there.

But Melnick also echoed concerns raised by the board of visitors’ report that Gov. John Baldacci has yet to nominate a person to fill vacant positions on the board. For instance, the current slot, which has been vacant for months, is reserved for someone with a mental health specialty.

The Governor’s Office said it hopes to put forward a nominee in time for an August hearing but that it may have to wait until lawmakers hold confirmation hearings in January.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

623-0024

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