June 21, 2018
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New Maine warden: Prison is ‘not a scary place’

The Associated Press

WARREN, Maine — Her office in Maine’s maximum-security prison is well-adorned with items handcrafted in the compound’s wood workshop: a long conference table and chairs, a model sailing ship and her desk, to name a few. But Patricia Barnhart said the piggy bank that sits on a wooden shelf is her favorite piece.

Barnhart’s choice is understandable.

On the job only a couple of months as Maine State Prison’s warden, the former Michigan corrections official knows well that finances are lean for state government, and the need to pinch pennies is all too real.

Two housing units in the 8-year-old prison are temporarily closed, guards are working 12-hour shifts, and officials search for shared savings with other state and county prisons. But Barnhart is undaunted by tight funds or other challenges as she steps in as warden, replacing Jeff Merrill who is heading energy conservation efforts in the prisons.

“This is not a scary place,” said Barnhart, who credits the prison staff with easing her entry to the job. “The people who work here are proud of what they do and should be.”

The 42-year-old Barnhart started at the end of November after a 20-year career in Michigan that started as corrections officer and ended as acting warden at a 1,216-bed prison for adult males and young offenders. By comparison, the Maine State Prison was housing 840 adult males during Barnhart’s interview this week with The Associated Press.

She makes little of her role as the first woman to become warden at the Maine facility, saying, “A lot of women have gone before me who’ve smashed the glass ceiling” in the corrections field.

New to Maine, Barnhart quickly became familiar with the prison’s most public appendage, its wood products outlet on well-traveled U.S. Route 1 in neighboring Thomaston, where inmate-made goods are sold to the public. She said she “dropped many a dollar there” to help furnish her house.

“I love the fact that it says tour buses, come down and park in back,” she said. “That speaks volumes, right there.”

Maine State Prison industries have net sales of about $1.3 million a year. All the money goes back into the industries program at the prison.

While the prison’s wood products and upholstery shops help sustain prison industries that occupy inmates and teach them skills, some lawmakers in Augusta see even more potential for them to expand and generate income to help sustain the prison. The very idea elicited a “Wow!” from Barnhart, who is uncomfortable with the notion of competing with local businesses.

“We have to be careful,” she said. “There’s a precarious balance, a very, very fine balance, between what citizens in the community have to offer in the way of some of these industries and what we have to offer.”

Another idea in the State House is in the form of a bill to require that prisoners get periodic reviews before being placed in isolation for extended periods. Supporters of the bill, including civil libertarians and church groups, assert that “solitary confinement” is used in excess at Warren. They say prolonged isolation borders on torture and subjects prisoners to severe mental stress.

Corrections Department Deputy Commissioner Denise Lord said the department is likely to oppose the bill at a hearing. Barnhart did not speak to the bill itself but rejected a basic claim of its backers.

“We don’t do solitary confinement. We do segregation,” Barnhart said. The segregation unit is now occupied by an escaped convict, a prisoner who took hostages at knife point in 2008, some who’ve threatened or injured other prisoners, themselves or staff.

To Barnhart, solitary confinement speaks to “the days when you threw somebody in the cell and you never saw them again. There was no contact with them, there was no plan for them, how they were eating, and what they were fed was all questionable.”

At the Maine prison, “there is not an hour that can go by in a segregation unit where there is not some contact of some sort with somebody, between the health care staff making rounds, the librarian making rounds, officers making rounds, shift commanders making rounds,” Barnhart said.

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