WARREN, Maine — On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of Maine State Prison inmates, along with prison administrators, corrections officers and state legislators, gathered around tables in the facility’s visitation room.
An agenda was passed out, an inmate set up a laptop to take minutes of the meeting, then a strangely democratic process got underway.
“All right, welcome everyone. Today we’ve got a pretty full agenda and a pretty tight time frame,” Warden Matthew Magnusson said as the group sat down to discuss matters ranging from pod updates to reentry planning initiatives.
It was the monthly meeting of the Prisoner Advisory Council, a group established earlier this year to bring all levels of the prison population and administration together to talk about policies, problems and potential solutions.
The council is the first of its kind in the Maine Department of Corrections system, according to Magnusson, and it’s already increasing communication, building relationships and working toward changing the system.
These prison meetings are where Rep. Bill Plucker, I-Warren, and Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, initially learned about the negative impacts a critical shortage of corrections officers is having on both staff and inmates.
As a result, the lawmakers submitted an emergency bill aiming to increase the compensation for corrections officers in Maine in order to help with staff recruitment. The Legislative Council approved the emergency bill request last month, and the bill could get a public hearing before the Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee early next year on its way to becoming law.
“What’s going on right here in this room is special. Where you have upper-level administration all the way down to residents of different units participating in a discussion that includes outside representatives,” said Leo, the inmate taking the meeting minutes. “We’re able to have real discussions about the issues that are going on in this prison … to put [those issues] on the table and have them be heard by people who can enact change.”
The Bangor Daily News was invited to the October Prison Council Advisory meeting, but is not using the full names of the inmates in order to prevent further trauma from being inflicted on their victims.
‘It’s not us versus them’
The council is composed of 15 inmates representing various groups that exist within the prison such as veterans, people of color, those in recovery, prisoners from religious backgrounds and those who are serving long sentences.
Prison administration officials used to meet separately with these groups but felt that bringing representatives from each to one table would have a better result.
“Together, along with staff, we’re trying to solve a lot of these underlying issues at the prison. What we’ve found is through a restorative justice circle, we are kind of working toward one goal,” Magnusson said.
Aside from prison administration, staff and inmates, and representatives from outside groups, such as the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network, attend the meetings, bring in their expertise and find areas for collaboration.
Topics that dominated the recent meeting included preparing inmates for reentry into the community as well as breaking down the stigma that comes with being incarcerated. A recent debate that played out in nearby Rockland over the placement of a reentry house in a residential neighborhood was referenced as one of the hurdles inmates face upon release.
“We want to convey to communities that people are trying to better themselves with the programs offered [in prison]. We think it’s important to let society know that there are people in here who made mistakes. They did their punishment now it’s time for them to put their life in order,” said Foster, president of the prison’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter.
Whether it’s a large societal issue such as reentry, or more day-to-day issues — such as prison programming — the meetings serve as a communication conduit.
Jeff, an inmate working with the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network to prepare inmates for release, said the meetings help share information not just between inmates and administration, but to others as well.
“These meetings create a conversation afterwards among ourselves. ‘Why don’t we work on this together, or do this together, to get this outcome,’” he said. “This meeting is groundbreaking. It throws the information out to both sides, to the administration and the inmate population, to help us understand how we can improve the culture of the prison.”
In her 15 years visiting the prison through her involvement with the NAACP, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said the Prisoner Advisory Council meetings are one of the best things she has seen happen there.
“To have this combination of input around the table and to feel perfectly empowered to add your voice to the discussion has been incredibly beneficial. It’s beneficial because there is some acknowledgement that the diversity of input will make the best result,” Talbot Ross said. “It’s not an us versus them. It’s ‘What are we going to do to move [the Department of Corrections] forward?’”