WARREN, Maine — A recent change that eliminates some information from the Maine Department of Corrections’ online prisoner-probationer database has been greeted with relief by the state’s prisoner advocates.
The database, which went live in early 2012, until now has provided anyone with access to the Internet information about the state’s more than 9,000 adult prisoners and probationers. The information included the offenses committed and a photo and date of birth of each offender. The database was intended both to allow victims to track their abusers and to reduce the workload for corrections staff members who typically handle information requests.
However, the information wasn’t constantly updated, according to the department’s commissioner, and prisoner advocates said that it was abused by some people.
“There were problems with the database,” Steve Lewicki, coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said Monday morning. “It was used as a vigilante justice thing in the prison. Prisoners would investigate each other and what they were there for, through their family and friends on the street, and sometimes that wouldn’t be good for the offender … basically, these prisoners were targeted victims of assaults.”
The biggest change has been to remove the state’s 7,000 probationers from the database, according to the Department of Corrections. Also, people no longer can enter criteria such as gender and race to search for prisoners in the database, but instead may search by name, prisoner number or location. The new database is basically a copy of the federal system, according to Commissioner Joseph Ponte of the Department of Corrections.
“Maine’s database had too much information that presented problems in other ways,” he said in a statement issued Monday. “Why should we put out information that wasn’t helpful?”
Before the change, the database may have shown a person as being currently on probation who actually was off probation, because probation officers weren’t entering information in real time, Ponte said.
According to Lewicki, removing the ability to search for probationers is a big help to people who are trying to get a fresh start — perhaps with a new place to live and a new job — after they’ve been released from prison.
“It gave nosy people a tool to look into their new neighbors and perhaps hold biases against them,” he said. “We hear a lot of stories about people who would encounter a lot of hostility. It’s basically judging a person before you got to know them.”
While adult prisoners remain searchable on the website, no longer do their photographs or offenses appear there. Their birthdates and earliest possible date of release still are available to the peruser.
Law enforcement agencies still have access to all information about prisoners and probationers when they contact the department, Ponte said.
“The system was intended for use by the public. That raised the question of ‘What does the public need to know about the offender?’” he said. “That’s where we ended up, and that’s why the system is changed.”