New warden has high hopes for state prison

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 23, 2009, at 9:27 p.m.

WARREN, Maine — A ship made at the Maine State Prison sits on Patricia Barnhart’s desk at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich.

It’s one sign that the prison’s next warden is eager to start her new job.

“We’re going to be the best-run prison facility in the country,” Barnhart said in a telephone interview this week from the Michigan facility, where she has been the acting warden for one year.

“I strongly believe in taking care of each other,” she said referring to herself and the staff at the Maine State Prison. “We can work through problems if we can work on them together. We have to deal with stuff as it occurs, both good and bad, but we need to celebrate the good.”

Barnhart, 42, will replace former Warden Jeff Merrill, who left in August to take a new energy conservation position in the Maine Department of Corrections.

The Michigan native will be the first woman in charge of a male prison facility in Maine when she takes the helm of the state’s largest prison on Dec. 1. The prison, which has a capacity of 916 inmates and employs 410 guards and other staffers, according to the department’s Web site, has had a spate of recent troubles. Those include state budget cuts, inmate overcrowding, the April homicide of inmate Sheldon Weinstein, and a shortage of correctional officers — which Associate Commissioner Denise Lord said has been resolved.

Barnhart said she hasn’t yet been briefed by Commissioner Martin Magnusson on the issues facing the prison, but added that budget problems won’t be new to her since she has worked in a state that has had to close or consolidate six prison facilities so far this year.

“That’s what’s going on in Michigan. They’re closing another one on the 31st of October,” she said. “Everybody’s experiencing a financially difficult time.”

Despite that, Barnhart sounds like she has retained her enthusiasm for corrections work, which has been a lifelong mission.

“I got started in the criminal justice program as a freshman [in college] and never deviated. I believed I’d work with juveniles, to be honest,” she said. “There was opportunity at that time in Michigan. Prison [construction] was going on. I started as a corrections officer and moved my way through from there.”

The Thumb Correctional Facility is located close to Flint, Mich., and houses both adult and juvenile males.

“When she took the prison over, it had been run very, very well,” said Penny Ryder, co-director of the criminal justice program for the Michigan office of the American Friends Service Committee. “All I can say is that she’s been very easy to work with.”

Ryder said that she has sent an e-mail to Barnhart in hopes that she will bring to Maine a Michigan program that works to reduce the numbers of segregated prisoners.

“They start giving them more privileges, based on their ability to do certain things, based on levels of proved trust,” Ryder said. “They get small jobs and take classes, so that instead of just sitting in their cells, which is what’s been traditionally done, they get worthwhile programming.”

Barnhart said she pays attention to statistics that state most prisoners eventually return to their communities.

“We’ve got to embrace education and teach them skills,” she said. “If we’re not putting tools into their toolkit, they’re going to come back in.”

One thing that particularly impressed her on her tour of the Maine State Prison last month during the interview process was its staff, she said.

“They were very engaged, very eager to talk about their areas, open and welcoming,” Barnhart said.

She plans to continue that level of communication after she relocates to Maine.

“You engage with staff. You walk and talk,” she said. “They’ll see me inside the prison on a very regular basis, because you can’t run a prison from behind a desk.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/10/23/news/new-warden-has-high-hopes-for-state-prison/ printed on November 23, 2014