The recent revelation about Maine’s dysfunctional and poorly staffed public boards overseeing the state prisons and county jails highlights a lost opportunity for the state. This is a particularly shocking revelation, given that the state’s youth prison in South Portland has become a dumping ground for young people with severe mental illnesses, where an inmate committed suicide last October. Problems in our prisons often only come to the attention of the public — as these did — when someone from outside has routine access to examine prison conditions.
Unfortunately, it is often the fate of prison systems and jails to fall into bureaucratic dysfunction unless there is effective external oversight. Maine has an established procedure under law for such oversight with its volunteer boards of visitors. The state should take the necessary steps to ensure the boards are fully staffed and functional as they can — and should — play a vital role in maintaining suitable standards of treatment and confinement within the criminal-justice system.
I know a thing or two about how prisons and jails — institutions created to address societal problems — can become progressively ineffective and inhumane institutions. In the early 1980s, I was employed as an attorney by a citizen-supported, nongovernmental organization to look into substandard conditions and abuse at a maximum security federal prison in Pennsylvania. I later worked for the state of New York looking into similar problems as part of an agency created after the 1971 Attica prison riot, which left 10 employees and 33 prisoners dead. In the 1990s, I led a small office of attorneys created to look into problems in the District of Columbia’s troubled, overcrowded correctional system after a 1986 disturbance at its Lorton, Virginia, prison where inmate set fires in several buildings, injuring dozens. In each of these prison settings — federal, state and local — I routinely confronted situations of crime behind bars, abuse, neglect and inhumane conditions.
For example, wardens and their political masters in maximum security prisons often resort to force and violence when inmates protest and demand improvement of substandard conditions. This is what happened at Attica before the 1971 riot, and it happened at two of the maximum security prisons where I had roles in investigating abuse and substandard conditions. Outsiders can bring a measure of perspective to such situations, which is sorely needed when everyone inside is locked into hostile camps and ready for a pitched battle that, typically, neither side wins.
More common than dramatic events such as these, however, are the routine, everyday instances of neglect and abuse that characterize these institutions. In the District of Columbia, I represented an inmate with severe multiple sclerosis confined to a jail infirmary. Although in a so-called “medical unit” inside the 1,600-person facility, the inmate, one side of whose body was virtually unmanageable due to his neurological disease, had not been seen by a neurologist nor received any treatment since his arrival. Moreover, he was locked in his room with a “call button” that didn’t work, and he regularly fell while trying to get in or out of his bed.
At a New York state maximum security prison, I found a 20-something inmate who had aged out of the foster care system, and he was incarcerated because his idea of taking care of himself was to break into camps and homes to get something to eat from the refrigerator or pantry and often just fall asleep on an available couch or bed. I found him in the isolation unit spending 23 hours per day in a cell, where he largely had been for several years. He could not understand and comply with simple rules nor follow directions, so the guards just put him away where he mentally deteriorated further, including suicide attempts.
In another instance, a colleague investigating conditions at one unit of the District of Columbia’s Lorton complex took video of vermin climbing over open bags of cereal and eating into boxes of food in the kitchen’s dry storage room.
Incidents like all of these — and many more I could relate — become all too common in institutions hidden away from public view even though maintained at public expense. Maine laws authorizing prison and jail boards of visitors are a reasonable and cost-effective way to bring problems to light so they can be addressed. Maine legislators should demand that the laws are followed so the system can work.
Robert C. Hauhart is professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He has visited Maine every year since 1996.