AUGUSTA, Maine — More than two dozen people turned out Monday to oppose a proposed disciplinary policy governing inmates in the state’s prison system which some said illegally restricts the ability of prisoners to communicate with the outside world.
No one spoke in favor of the proposed rules at the more than two-hour hearing held before Maria Lucia, an employee of the Maine Department of Corrections who drafted the policy.
She said before the hearing began at the DOC administrative office building that the policy was designed to streamline the disciplinary process and to add new violations.
Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick did not attend but many speakers submitted written testimony and the hearing was recorded.
Lucia said that she could not elaborate on the updated policy until Nov. 6 when the comment period ends. She said that on that date the department would respond to questions and comments. The proposed policy must be reviewed by the Maine attorney general’s office before it can go into effect.
It was unclear Monday who would make the final decision about what changes, if any, would be implemented.
Many individuals who spoke at the hearing criticized the policy’s ban on soliciting and communicating with pen pals and members of the media as well as inmates not being allowed to have their writings posted on a blog or social media site by a third party.
Inmates in the state prison system do not have access to the Internet while incarcerated.
The ACLU of Maine urged the Department of Corrections to withdraw the proposed rules, or to substantially modify them before putting them into effect.
Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine, criticized the notice of the changes and the lack of details in the announcement published in newspapers and on the department’s website.
“The description does not explain how the disciplinary process is being changed,” he said. “It does not explain why such changes are more
‘streamlined,’ it does not list the new violations nor does it explain why these new violations have ‘become necessary.’
“The law calls for proposed policy changes to be accompanied by a fact sheet that explains what the changes are and why they are needed,” Heiden said.
He also said that many of the rules limiting contact with the media and forbidding solicitation of and communication with pen pals already have been litigated and found to be unconstitutional.
“These new disciplinary rules will have a negative effect on the ability of prisoners to communicate and interact with the world outside of prison,” he said. “The rules will prevent prisoners from establishing new relationships or strengthening existing relationships, and they will undermine prisoners’ ability to access information and to access the justice system.”
James Schatz of Blue Hill, the former Democratic representative who in 2010 sponsored a bill to outlaw solitary confinement, also opposed the proposed rules.
“These rules will tend to isolate inmates more than required and create a kind of isolation that could be equal to solitary confinement,” he said.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, agreed.
“I’m not sure if it’s unconstitutional, but it does strike me as unnecessary and, in some ways, counterproductive,” Brakey said. “How does isolating prisoners from the outside world support rehabilitation? Also, if we restrict prisoners’ right to communicate with the news media, we eliminate the freedom to communicate about any misconduct, whether it’s true or false. If some have abused their free speech rights, then the DOC should deal with those individuals.”
Many of the people who spoke said the terms in the policy needed to be defined for inmates, staff and family.
Jan Collins of Wilton, whose son Gordon Collins-Faunce, 26, of Arundel is incarcerated for manslaughter for the fatal beating of his 10-month-old son, Ethan Henderson, on May 5, 2012, said she is worried about how the potential policy, if implemented, would affect her son’s remaining years in prison. The earliest he would be eligible for release is September 2029.
Collins said that one of the things that concerns her is the rule that states her son may not have more than five books in his cell at a time or it is considered hoarding.
“When Gordon receives a book, it is immediately tagged by the mailroom as belonging to him,” she said. “If he should let someone borrow the book, he will be committing [the infraction] of giving or receiving.
“My son wants to play for the softball team, but I will have to advise him against it,” she continued. “Throwing is [an infraction.] There are no exceptions. Throwing any object of substance is an offense.”
Collins also said that the monetary penalties that range from $25 to $100, depending on the severity of the infraction, leave many inmates in debt when they are released in addition to whatever fines they may owe the courts.
Rachel Talbot Ross, head of the Maine Chapter of the NAACP, urged Commissioner Fitzpatrick, who has been head of the DOC since March 2014, to include community members, inmates and the family members of inmates in the policy-writing process as his predecessor Joseph Ponte did.
Lucia, who has been on the job almost two years, said after the hearing that she was unaware of such a policy-writing committee.