For more than a year, Tonya DiMillo saw tragedy waiting to happen at the state’s youth prison.
Young people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses filled the cells at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, and corrections staff, who didn’t have the training to know how to respond, struggled to keep them safe.
Then, last October, a 16-year-old transgender boy, Charles Maisie Knowles, hanged himself in his cell while on suicide watch. Soon after, a young girl at Long Creek tried to do the same, strangling herself before being rushed to the hospital.
The second suicide attempt, and its place in the pattern of self-inflicted violence among Long Creek’s scores of young inmates with mental illness, came to light only because DiMillo and the other members of an independent, citizen watchdog group for the prison reported it to the Maine Legislature. Maine has five of these volunteer groups, called boards of visitors, that are appointed by the governor and empowered by law to monitor and inspect state correctional facilities and recommend changes.
Gov. Paul LePage responded with what members of the Long Creek oversight board described as retribution. He dismantled it.
Six days after the Bangor Daily News first published a report on the pattern of self-harm among youth with mental illness at Long Creek, the governor’s office denied two of the four board members’ applications to serve for a second three-year term. A third member never heard back about his reapplication.
LePage left DiMillo, the chair and only member whose term didn’t expire last year, alone on the board. It is now “inactive” because of the unfilled vacancies, according to the Maine Department of Corrections.
The response has served to weaken what is already an ailing system of oversight for Maine’s state prisons and county jails.
Over the last decade — with some notable exceptions — the five boards of visitors for Maine’s prisons have regularly been short on members, have sometimes gone long periods without meeting and have frequently failed to submit annual reports to the Legislature that could provide lawmakers and the public rare glimpses of what’s going on behind prison bars.
Independent oversight is even scarcer in the county jails, which are also, by law, supposed to have boards of visitors. Of Maine’s 15 county jails, two of which are short-term holding facilities, only four have boards, according to the sheriffs’ offices that run the facilities.
Without independent oversight, there is no clear check on the government’s power over prison staff and inmates, whose work and lives are concealed behind high fences and locked doors. In this environment, the LePage administration has restricted corrections officials from speaking to lawmakers and the media, leaving these faltering, independent boards to stand up to a governor who appoints their members and can, apparently, shut them down at will.
The state needs independent oversight because “prisons and jails are about as closed institutions as exist in our society,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the law school at the University of Texas, Austin. “We see people dying, whether from suicides or health conditions that are neglected. These are institutions that cost the citizens a great deal of money, and we don’t know how that money is being spent.”
On March 6, Stacey Neumann, a Portland defense attorney, and David Vickrey, a financial consultant, were informed that they would not be allowed to serve second terms on the Long Creek board of visitors in letters from LePage’s head of boards and commissions, Andrew Bracy.
The decision came “after conferring with all interested parties in the governor’s office,” Bracy wrote in a three-sentence letter to Vickrey.
The third member, retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Howard Dana Jr., didn’t hear back about his application for reappointment.
LePage’s office didn’t respond to a list of questions, including some about why he declined to reappoint the members. But Neumann and Vickrey believe the decision was retribution for the board reporting to lawmakers its concerns for the safety of young people at Long Creek.
“The whole modus operandi of LePage is to shoot the messenger,” said Vickrey. “It’s clear that the government doesn’t want outside oversight in the Department of Corrections. Everybody [there] is afraid of their shadow.”
Meanwhile, young people remain in crisis. As of last July, nearly 85 percent of the youth committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions.
‘You don’t get an outside, public look’
The visitors boards are one of the public’s only avenues to learn whether the correctional system they pay for is doing its job. But many of the boards’ members are difficult to find.
The Maine Department of Corrections wouldn’t provide the names of all board members or their contact information, and repeatedly declined to provide the times and places of the board’s public meetings, saying they are advertised in newspapers.
There is limited information about three boards on the department’s website, and, after the BDN began asking about others, a department employee said they would be added to the site. That hasn’t happened yet.
It was largely by reading through reports kept by the Maine Department of the Secretary of State, which tracks the state’s various boards and commissions, that the appointees on the public boards could be reached.
But, it turned out, there weren’t too many people to reach out to.
Maine law states that the governor “shall appoint a board of 5 visitors for each correctional facility.” But Long Creek’s board is not the only one that’s mostly vacant. The board for the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, which holds more than 700 inmates, including all of Maine’s female prisoners, is also “inactive,” according to the Department of Corrections.
Of the 25 volunteer seats across the five boards statewide, five were officially vacant as of May 11, according to the secretary of state. Another 14 seats — including those of the two Long Creek board members who LePage didn’t reappoint — are listed as active even though the terms of their occupants have expired.
(Maine law generally stipulates that members of public boards can continue holding office even after their term has expired, until a successor has been appointed. But, regardless, most visitors board members whose terms have expired are not participating on their respective boards.)
On average over the last decade, more than 10 of the boards’ collective 25 seats have been vacant or expired each year. And people aren’t clamoring to be independent watchdogs.
“Not getting reappointed, frankly, came as a surprise,” said Neumann, formerly with Long Creek’s board. “It’s not like there are a lot of people vying to be on an uncompensated, fully volunteer board that’s a lot of work.”
The board members who spoke about their duties had varied understandings of their roles and the workings of their boards:
Getting together. Some didn’t know of the law that requires their boards to meet at least four times per year, and others were confused about whether these meetings are open to the public. Although the meetings are public, board members said outsiders rarely, if ever, attend.
From 2006 to 2016, the board for Long Creek and the one that covers the Maine State Prison and Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren averaged more than four meetings each year, while the other three boards averaged fewer than the required four yearly meetings, according to the secretary of state’s records.
The boards for the Charleston Correctional Facility and the Maine Correctional Center came in a bit shy of the required number of meetings during that period, but the board for Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport fell far below it.
In the last decade, the board for Downeast averaged less than a meeting a year and only convened three times in the last four years, according to the secretary of state’s reports. All five seats on the prison’s board are now, in effect, inactive.
Pursuing a mission. The former Downeast board chair, Susan West, expressed frustration with LePage’s failure to appoint members and more generally with his push to close the prison. But she also said that, as chair, she hadn’t seen the board’s role as that of a watchdog.
“It’s not an independent board. We don’t oversee anything. We don’t have any power, any control,” West said. “Basically we’re cheerleading.”
Perry Gates, a member of the Maine State Prison’s board of visitors, described the board as “a loose operation” and “a fairly passive review of the administrative function of the prison and any incidents or inquiries that come up.”
Members of other boards described their roles as ensuring accountability and transparency.
“But for [the boards of visitors], you don’t get an outside, public look at an institution that is run by state employees,” said Dana, the retired judge who served on Long Creek’s board. “A prison is a state facility, and it’s very hard for, for instance, the Legislature, to know much about it.”
Providing feedback. There is little evidence that the boards have consistently informed lawmakers or the corrections commissioner of their recommendations for changes, as they are also required to do by law.
Of the 50 annual reports that should have been sent to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee over the last decade, only 13 were turned up through requests to the committee, the boards, the Department of Corrections, the Law and Legislative Reference Library, the State Library and the State Archives.
These searches also found no written responses — as required by law — from the commissioner of corrections.
Shortly after this story was published an aide to Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, who’s headed Maine’s Department of Corrections since 2014 and oversees its $347-million two-year budget, said that “as far as I can tell, the DOC did not send responses to the reports.”
Nine of the 13 available reports came from the Maine State Prison’s board, which submitted one every year from 2005 to 2014. It is unclear how many, if any, of the missing reports and responses were written and simply could not be located, but members of various boards confirmed there were multiple years in which they hadn’t written or submitted a report.
The reports from the Maine State Prison board offer detailed accounts of the facility’s successes and challenges each year. They document the difficulties of bearing budget cuts and combating low staff morale, raise alarms over allegations of wrongdoing, recommend new prison programs and challenge the Legislature to look more closely at various aspects of the prison. And members say that the board has driven reform.
Denise Altvater, a Passamaquoddy tribe member, joined the state prison board about a decade ago. Since then the board has successfully pushed for prisoners to be allowed to run sweat lodges and hold other native religious ceremonies, she said.
Across the correctional system, however, board reports appear to have been scarce enough that not all members of the Legislature’s current criminal justice committee were aware they should be receiving them.
“What I think has happened is that when you have all new people on the committee, if you aren’t getting the reports, you don’t know,” said Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the committee’s co-chair. “There isn’t a guide or a table of contents where it goes, ‘These are the reports you’re supposed to get.’”
After years of doing so, the Maine State Prison board didn’t submit annual reports to the Legislature in 2015 and 2016. Asked why, Walter Foster, who became the chair in 2015, said he hadn’t realized that anything beyond a summary of meeting dates and attendance was required.
That, and he didn’t think anyone would read them.
If state leaders followed the law
Inspired by similar bodies in the United Kingdom, boards of visitors first appeared in Maine in 1931 when the 85th Legislature passed a law creating the rudiments of the current system of oversight.
That law evolved over time, eventually specifying that boards should send copies of their annual recommendations on each prison to the legislative committee overseeing corrections.
Through the early 2000s, there was a push to improve corrections oversight. In 2003, the Legislature passed a law requiring sheriffs to appoint boards of visitors for the county jails.
In 2005 it approved another law, sponsored by Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, that strengthened the prison boards and put in place the required duties that still stand today.
“It became obvious that we had people who run the correctional systems here, but where is the outside view? Where are the checks and balances?” Diamond said of his 2005 bill. “So [strengthening] the boards of visitors just made sense.”
While the prison boards of visitors often fall short of their statutory responsibilities, those for the county jails mostly don’t exist.
Of the state’s 15 county jails, only four have a board, according to the offices of the sheriffs who run them — York County Jail; Penobscot County Jail; Cumberland County Jail; and Two Bridges Regional Jail, which serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties.
In the nine counties that lacked boards of visitors, sheriffs mostly said they were unaware of the law. For instance, Dale Lancaster, sheriff of Somerset County, seemed surprised by questions about the jail’s board of visitors.
“This part of oversight I wasn’t aware of,” said Lancaster. “I can assure you that in the very near future there will be conversations [about it].”
The lack of oversight throughout Maine’s prisons and jails is troubling to lawmakers, who have limited means of assessing what’s happening within the corrections department — which has the third largest budget of all state agencies.
“We invest a lot of money in criminal justice,” Warren, the criminal justice committee chair, said. “Can you imagine if we had no access to what was happening in public schools? How is this different?”
And it is out of step with practices that are considered most effective for running prisons, according to corrections experts such as Deitch.
In just about every other western democracy, prisons and jails are routinely subject to outside monitoring. But in the U.S., Maine is among only a handful of states with a system meant to hold corrections facilities publically accountable, according to a nationwide study by Deitch.
Maine’s largely unimplemented oversight system struck Deitch as a failure — but also an opportunity. Maine is positioned to become a national model for corrections accountability, she said: It would simply require state leaders to more consistently follow the law.
Here’s what that would look like: LePage would fill the five vacant seats and reappoint the 14 people whose terms have expired on the boards that oversee the state prisons, or appoint new people to those seats. The boards would write and submit annual reports, including recommendations on how to improve the prisons they oversee, and meet at least four times a year. They would tell the public when they are meeting and encourage local community members to attend.
The commissioner of corrections would respond to the board reports within a month of receiving them. Members of the Legislature’s criminal justice committee would make sure they are receiving the reports and responses, and call on board members and the commissioner to testify when they had follow-up questions or concerns.
The nine sheriffs without a required board of visitors would each create one. These boards would meet regularly, invite public input and have the power to inspect the local jails.
Maine could again draw inspiration from the U.K., which has the equivalent of a $2.67-million-a-year central office that maintains the websites of and disseminates training materials for the 131 boards that monitor the same number of prisons and holding facilities across the country. Maine could likely set up a similar system for roughly two dozen prisons and jails for far less.
Even without a costly central office, the government could easily start making reports on Maine prisons and jails available to the public by publishing them online, as the U.K. does.
And some who work in Maine corrections see value in implementing outside oversight.
Eric Samson, sheriff of Androscoggin County, said he was previously unaware of the law requiring the jail he oversees to have a board of visitors but had thought about creating something similar himself.
Samson believes that a board of visitors would provide a fuller picture of life behind bars to a public that now only gets grim fragments.
“Unless there’s a suicide,” he said, “the community never hears what’s going on in the jails.”
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.