Corrections chief pick a home run for LePage

Posted Jan. 25, 2011, at 7:46 p.m.

On Nov. 14, in a letter congratulating Gov. Paul LePage on his election to office, I urged him to go outside the prison system in Maine for a commissioner of corrections. My words specifically were:

“Among the changes needed in Maine’s correctional system is to appoint a commissioner from outside the organization with a mandate for openness, for cutting costs and for reducing recidivism through a cohesive re-entry strategy. It has been proven effective in other jurisdictions and can work here in Maine. Otherwise, with Maine having one of the highest rates of growth in incarceration in the nation, we stand to watch the costs spiral further out of control.”

I should like to think that my advice played a minor role in the governor’s decision. Nevertheless, with the appointment of Joseph Ponte, Gov. LePage may have scored a home run.

The Department of Corrections, with oversight for 21 jails and prisons, is broken beyond repair. Principle among reasons is that for generations it has followed a policy of promotion from within. While that may sound fair to some, there are two sets of rules within the system. One is the set of rules outlined in the mountain of policies written from the safety of Augusta. The other is the set of rules followed in practice.

That set of rules followed in practice is an Old Boy system of government that rewards allegiance not to the employer — the taxpayers of the state of Maine — but to a hierarchy of security personnel that is widely known as “the kid system.” In a nutshell, guards and prisoners alike are “adopted” on the basis of their value to administrators and promoted on the basis of their willingness to bend to the rules of a dysfunctional system.

This tradition has been preserved through decades in Maine and may be referred to as “trickle up” management. Prison guards, who are on the front line of defense, have little opportunity for advancement if they insist on holding onto a modicum of personal integrity. A turnover of up to 25 percent per year is not unusual, nor is it unusual for a guard to put in 25 years without being recognized or promoted.

As a result, morale among staff is rock bottom, and management is riddled with “double-dippers,” — retirees hired back as contract employees to prevent change. It is a dysfunctional system that has protected itself from the lowliest guard right up through the commissioner’s office.

Gov. LePage has exhibited incredible insight in the appointment of Joseph Ponte, a warden for the Corrections Corporation of America. While there will be those who will point to a $25,000 campaign donation to LePage by CCA, I have pointed out elsewhere that nobody can be bought for $25,000 in a campaign that cost upwards of $2 million. Besides, it would be nearly impossible to do a worse job of prison management than is now being carried out by the Department of Corrections.

Ponte’s experience has bridged both public and private prison systems. He is a turnaround specialist for troubled prisons. He has been warden of the infamous Walpole Prison in Massachusetts and was director of staff development in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections.

As jail chief of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department in Memphis, Tenn., from 2001 to 2006, Ponte ran a 2,800-bed jail, with a staff of 1,250, for $58 million. By comparison, Maine State Prison houses just fewer than 1,000 prisoners at roughly the same cost.

We will hold judgment on Ponte’s performance and on his presumed preference for private prisons. From my perspective, as a former staff member of the Department of Corrections, I applaud this bold stroke by Gov. LePage. Joseph Ponte has exactly the right track record in private and public incarceration strategies to shake up the department and restore consistent and effective discipline.

Coupled with the ongoing work to reduce recidivism through re-entry programs, I hope to see a day soon where the least-valued of our citizens will have a shot at becoming contributing members of our communities.

Stan Moody of Manchester is a former state representative and served as a chaplain at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

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