LIBERTY, Maine — What would happen if a person committed a violent crime as a young person, served time for it, found it tough to find a place to live after prison and ended up staying in a camper trailer near a public park?
This was the problem that confronted a neighborhood in Liberty this summer when John Fields, a 56-year-old felon, showed up on the shores of Lake St. George. Nearly 40 years ago, he was convicted of kidnapping a young nurse who worked at Maine Medical Center in Portland. The young woman, who also was robbed and stabbed a number of times during the ordeal, survived. And her assailant — a teenager at the time of the kidnapping — is now a free man.
“He’s served his time,” Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office said recently after identifying Fields as the man in question.
But some nervous residents of Liberty weren’t sure that they believed he is the kind of person they wanted to hang out near the popular Marshall Shores Town Park. After neighbors learned about the man’s violent past, word spread fast, residents said.
“There’s nothing legally we can do,” a different resident, First Selectman Jim Caldwell, said this week. “He’s as free as you and I are. It’s just a scary situation.”
But some neighbors got together to figure out if, in fact, there were some things they could do about their uninvited visitor.
“In no time thereafter, we organized and had a neighborhood meeting and invited a representative from the sheriff’s office to help us learn what we might do,” a Marshall Shores area resident who didn’t want her name published for fear of reprisals, said this week. “We also made it a point to warn everyone who had not heard.”
The residents formed a neighborhood watch group, asked police to keep an eagle eye on Marshall Shores and began working on a new ordinance for the park that would limit overnight activities there. Their efforts have appeared to be successful, inasmuch as the man recently has vanished from the lakeside park.
“We all hope he can find the help he may need and a job and a place to live … and finally enjoy his life as a free person,” the resident said.
But not on her lake.
Although this particular situation happened in Liberty, it could have happened in many Maine communities where some inhabitants are uncomfortable about living close to convicted felons. The fear of violent offenders is understandable, but is not likely to help felons become reintegrated into society, according to Margaret Micolichek of the Belfast-based Restorative Justice Program of the Midcoast. It might not help society much, either, she said.
“What I would imagine is when you’re not accepted anywhere and you can’t find a place to live, you’ll probably reoffend and go back to prison,” Micolichek said. “There, you know the system. You know you can function in that system. It does have a normality to it.”
A 2011 study on recidivism in American prisons by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that more than 45 percent of people released from prison in 1999 were reincarcerated within three years. Recidivism numbers for Maine were not immediately available. According to the Bureau of Justice, 2,108 Mainers were among the 1.57 million Americans incarcerated last year.
“If more than four out of 10 adult American offenders still return to prison within three years of their release, the system designed to deter them from continued criminal behavior clearly is falling short,” the Pew study concluded. “That is an unhappy reality, not just for offenders, but for the safety of American communities.”
Micolichek said instead of shunning felons, it would be better — and safer — to find ways to let them back into society.
“It doesn’t mean forgiving them,” she said. “But based on our system, they’ve paid back to society … you still have to come back. Face the people. Face society. If we truly want to have safety, we have to know [the felons]. That’s my opinion.”
Scott Fish, spokesman for the Maine Department of Corrections, said Friday that Commissioner Joseph Ponte has a progressive outlook on the role of prisons and that rehabilitation will be playing a larger role in the future.
“When people come to prison, whether as adults or as juveniles, it doesn’t do any good to just serve time doing nothing,” he said. “We know there’s been a crime, but are there underlying reasons? Is there a drug problem? Can this person not read? If so, let’s develop a plan … the goal is, when you get out of here, it would be nice if you don’t come back. The commissioner says we’re the Department of Corrections — not the department of punishment.”
But some, including Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, have some questions about the state’s commitment to rehabilitation. She said that the state is spending its financial resources mostly on incarceration, not on helping prisoners reintegrate into society. Maine taxpayers spent $132.9 million in 2010 on prison expenditures, with an annual average inmate cost of $56,269, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.
“When they’re released from prison, they have no food, no housing, sometimes no family,” Garvey said Friday. “With the best of intentions and programs, the odds are still stacked against them.”
She estimated that just 4 or 5 percent of Maine prisoners receive pre-release services. In most cases, the state sends released prisoners away with just $50 and a bus ticket, according to the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of California, Davis.
“What people do is go to a wonderful place like Preble Street [in Portland], which does what prisons should be doing. They try to help with everything,” Garvey said, adding that the help includes housing, food, mental health support, addiction counseling and help with finding work. “Or in Bangor, the Hope House. All of the good people who try to pick up the pieces of people who are much more shattered than before they entered prisons.”
Back in Liberty, where the shores of Lake St. George might once again feel quiet and safe for those who live under the towering pine trees there, the question of how to treat felons and where they should live remains unresolved.
“What can we do? What should we do?” Caldwell said of the residents’ summertime dilemma about Fields.