Prisoners find their way back to Maine

Eric Zelz | BDN
Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 12:09 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 14, 2012, at 1:14 p.m.
Arty and Pam Belanger stood on either side of their son, Arthur Belanger, in Maine State Prison on Thanksgiving 2011.
Photo courtesy of Pam and Arty Belanger
Arty and Pam Belanger stood on either side of their son, Arthur Belanger, in Maine State Prison on Thanksgiving 2011.
Eric Zelz | BDN

WARREN, Maine — Arthur Belanger, 29, grew up in Maine, committed a murder in Maine and was sentenced to prison in Maine in 2005.

Then in 2009, he was transferred to a prison in Florida against his will and too far away for his parents to visit. It was difficult enough for his parents to accept that their son murdered one of his Army buddies in 2003, but now they were concerned he might not survive the 40 years left on his sentence if he was forced to serve his time out in Florida.

After two years of worrying, the Belangers are breathing easier.

Arthur Belanger is the first Maine inmate to come back from an out-of-state prison since a new policy was put in place last May. According to the Department of Corrections, two more men are coming back to Maine soon.

Belanger had been leading some in-prison protests, which is why he suspects he was moved out of Maine’s supermaximum-security prison in 2009. On his second day in Florida’s prison, he watched a prisoner get murdered. Gang violence also was so prevalent and life inside so dangerous that prisoners had to go to the bathroom in pairs for safety, he said. All the more reason for his parents Arty and Pam Belanger, of Madison, to fret.

When Arthur protested his transfer and twice requested to be moved back, the Department of Corrections sent him a simple, “no.” No reason and no possible re-admittance dates were given.

“You never know when or if they’ll come back,” said his dad. “That uncertainty, it’s consuming. You don’t know if you will ever see him again. It’s so tough to get through that.”

Arty and Pam Belanger lived with that uncertainty for two long years. They went from getting regular phone calls and visiting monthly when he was in Maine to limited correspondence, with very few calls allowed and no visits.

“It wasn’t just punishing him,” Pam Belanger said. “It was punishing us. We can’t go to Florida.”

Arty Belanger said he knows of a woman who moved out of state with her children so that the youngsters could visit their father. But he couldn’t see that happening in their case.

“I’m disabled and on a fixed income,” he said. “What? Are we supposed to take a vacation to see our son? We can’t do that.”

Instead of accepting that their son might remain thousands of miles away indefinitely, the Belangers and other prisoner advocates worked to introduce a bill in the Maine Legislature to give prisoners a say in their transfers out of state. Arty Belanger testified in April during a public hearing on the bill and told the corrections commissioner why he thought his son should come back to Maine.

That proposed legislation died when corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte promised to address the issue himself through department regulations. True to his word, a month later, in May 2011, Ponte changed the policy on out-of-state transfers.

So Arthur Belanger tried again, submitting a request to be sent back to Maine State Prison. Soon, he was given notice that he could come back to Maine — so long as he stayed out of trouble in Florida for 60 days. He did. And on Thanksgiving Day 2011 he hugged his mom and dad for the first time in two years.

“Thanksgiving,” said Pam Belanger, knocking on the wooden prison table in the Maine State Prison visitors’ room, while sitting next to her son during a recent visit. “We were here on Thanksgiving.”

Dad added, “I got my son back. I felt so relieved. I could see him. He is safe. I’m thrilled. It was like Christmas.”

The change in policy was spurred and put into effect by Ponte, the new Department of Corrections commissioner, confirmed Scott McCaffery, the department’s director of classification.

“The commissioner spearheaded the effort. He looked at [what was happening with transfers] and felt it was something we needed to look at and bring people back who have done well, and people who have close family connections,” McCaffrey said on Feb. 7. “It’s well known that a family support system is a key to rehabilitation, about how [inmates] adjust on a daily basis and how they plan for the future.”

The new policy gives prisoners a lot more say about whether they should be transferred out of state. Before, the process was not transparent and it was unclear what reasons the department needed, if any, to ship a prisoner away. There also seemed to be no policies about how a prisoner could return.

Now, the new policy states that prisoners can be transferred out of state against their will only in certain situations: they need medical or psychological attention Maine’s facilities can’t provide, they can’t be safely managed in Maine or they are a safety hazard to prison staff or other prisoners.

If an inmate is transferred out of state against his will, he can appeal the decision to a newly-formed committee of prison staffers that will write recommendations to the commissioner about where the inmate should be housed.

And instead of being told “no, you can not return” without a reason, the Maine Department of Corrections now must “clearly identify the requirements [to return], include specific time frames, [have a plan] for the prisoner to participate in recommended treatment … [and] set out the period of time the prisoner must be free of major discipline in order to be considered for return to Maine,” the policy states.

Not all prisoners out-of-state are unhappy with their placements. Some elected to be moved in order to be closer to their families, according to the Maine corrections department. Others might have been relocated because they posed a safety hazard to the prison staff or other inmates.

There are now 26 Maine prisoners housed out of state. Of those, seven are in New Hampshire, five are unlisted, three are in Connecticut, two are in New Jersey, two are in Massachusetts and each of the following states has one Maine inmate: Colorado, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Florida and Delaware.

Last April when the changes were being pushed, 31 prisoners were housed out of state. Since then, some have completed their sentences.

There also are 24 inmates from other states serving their time in Maine’s prison system, according to the corrections department. Seven are from New Hampshire, four each are from Connecticut and New Jersey, two each are from Florida and Massachusetts, and one each hail from Colorado, Oklahoma, Oregon, Maryland and Rhode Island. This is possible because the Maine State Prison participates in the national Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision. Being in the compact allows Maine to move prisoners to other facilities in any of the other 49 states. In return, Maine takes other states’ prisoners.

Maine does not pay to send out prisoners and does not get paid to take in prisoners.

Prisoner Arthur Belanger isn’t yet sure how his family’s returned presence in his life has helped him, but he enjoys seeing them during their monthly visits.

At the table in the prison’s visitors’ room during this recent trip, his parents encouraged him to enroll in an in-prison college program. They talked about his sisters and his niece. His mom, who works at Wal-Mart, often runs into his old friends and updates her son about their lives.

Arthur Belanger never thought that his dad’s testimony and meeting with the corrections department commissioner would work, but he is happy it did. He said he likes being in Maine, where the prison is a bit calmer and safer and where he can see his family.

The hard part comes when his parents get up from the plastic chairs and have to walk through the huge, clanking metal doors that separate the prison from the outside world.

“I’m happy to see them come,” Arthur said, sitting in his prison-issued blue shirt and jeans, with a dark mustache like his dad’s. “But it sucks to see them leave. It’s hard to know I can’t leave with them. When they leave I feel like I’ve let them down. I could have done so much more with my life. Now they have to visit me in prison.”

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