The growing lack of accountability of the Maine Department of Corrections is staggering. From unexplained firings to refusing to answer media questions to moving to close a prison despite votes from lawmakers to fund it and keep it open, it is clear that lawmakers must step in to ensure the department is being run in the best interests of Maine citizens.
In March, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick put the administrator of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland on leave without explanation. In May, the department and Gov. Paul LePage took 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 unanimously voted to recommend funding the prison for another two years.
Fitzpatrick has not responded to the two annual reports submitted by prison oversight boards in 2016, despite the fact that the law says he should. His response is not only legally required, it’s also important for the public to be able to see how the department thinks about and responds to concerns. Instead, Gov. LePage dismantled the board overseeing Long Creek after it issued its 2016 report, which was critical of the way the youth prison was managing young people’s mental health needs.
The department appears to pick and choose when to respond to requests for information. For a recent article about the absence of independent oversight over the prisons, Fitzpatrick made himself available on the phone for just 109 seconds after multiple unanswered phone calls and emails. During that short call, he did not answer the reporter’s questions about the prison boards of visitors — citizen groups set out in law to provide independent oversight but that are, in practice, largely ineffective and dormant.
Every employee of the department the BDN contacted for the article on oversight — from secretaries to prison wardens to associate commissioners — told the reporters that media requests must go through the commissioner.
The department appears to be limiting its communications with the Legislature as well. Fitzpatrick will no longer appear before the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee, according to Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the committee’s co-chairwoman.
“This is the committee that is supposed to help oversee the criminal justice system in our state, and we’re not allowed to get information from the commissioners,” Warren told the BDN. “This is absolute insanity.”
Department staff members did answer questions about how the state juvenile prison laid off nearly half of its teachers but then hired Fitzpatrick’s daughter.
The department’s reticence to talk highlights the need for a stronger system of independent oversight. That system already exists in a law that says each correctional facility should have a board of visitors to inspect and monitor it. But currently 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.
When the department does not provide information to the public — or provides it slowly — these boards of visitors could provide it themselves or hold the department to account. But they can only do that if the governor fills the 19 out of 25 board seats that are currently vacant and expired, and if the boards meet regularly and report their findings to lawmakers and the public.
You only realize how much you need oversight when it’s too late. One preventable tragedy — the suicide of a transgender teenager at Long Creek last October — has already happened. Lawmakers should not wait for another to strengthen oversight over Maine’s prisons.