EDITORIALS

Maine has strong prison oversight laws. Lawmakers and correctional leaders should follow them.

Posted June 12, 2017, at 12:19 p.m.

The LePage administration’s Department of Corrections has not given the public good reason to trust it lately.

Over the past six months, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick has put the administrator of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland on leave without explanation. Gov. Paul LePage has taken steps to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, even after the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee had voted to fund the prison for another two years.

And now, after an independent watchdog group reported that the youth prison was failing to treat young inmates with mental illness, the BDN’s Maine Focus team reported that LePage has dismantled the group.

Given this administration’s insular, unilateral tendencies, public oversight of the Department of Corrections’ $347-million two-year budget is more important than ever. Yet the the Maine Focus investigation found that it is sorely lacking.

On paper, Maine has a robust system of independent oversight. By law, the state should have five volunteer groups, called boards of visitors, that are appointed by the governor and empowered to monitor and inspect the state’s five correctional facilities and recommend changes. Another law stipulates there should be a board for each of the 15 county jails.

But in practice the system barely functions. 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.

And of the state’s 15 county jails, only four have a board.

Regardless who is running the Department of Corrections and how, most corrections experts agree that independent oversight of some of the most insular institutions in society is essential to their safe, effective operation.

“Prisons and jails are about as closed institutions as exist in our society,” Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer with the law school at the University of Texas at Austin, told the BDN. “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.”

Indeed. The Department of Corrections has the third-largest budget of any state agency, after health and human services and education. “Can you imagine if we had no access to what was happening in public schools? How is this different?” Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the co-chair of the Legislature’s criminal justice committee was right to question.

The high cost of the system isn’t the only reason we should want independent oversight. The Maine corrections system holds roughly 4,000 people per year behind bars.

Most people who work in corrections are decent and good. But in any system, there are always a few people more interested in exercising power than in treating people humanely. And given that prisoners are one of the easiest populations in society to abuse and neglect, “you should always have someone looking over their shoulder,” Kate Eves, who consults with prisons across the U.S. on their oversight practices, said.

Maine’s lawmakers should immediately work to restore external oversight over Maine’s prisons and jails. Doing so wouldn’t be difficult — it would simply mean more consistently following the law.

To that end, LePage should fill the 19 prison board seats that are vacant or expired, out of 25 total. The five boards should write and submit annual reports, including recommendations on how to improve the prisons they oversee. Members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee should make sure they are receiving the reports and call on board members to testify when they have follow-up questions or concerns.

The nine sheriffs without a required board of visitors should each create one. These boards should meet regularly, invite public input and have the power to inspect the local jails.

None of this is likely to happen without constituents haranguing their lawmakers.

Maine’s largely unimplemented oversight system struck Deitch, the law professor and a national expert in oversight, as a failure — but also an opportunity. Maine is positioned to become a national model for corrections accountability, she said. If its leaders choose to follow the law.

 

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