It’s widely recognized — on a bipartisan basis — that the American prison system is needlessly huge, cruel, expensive and counter-productive. That’s the context for this column.

In March, Deep State disclosed that there had been a big increase over several years in prisoner assaults on guards in the Maine prison system — especially, in the maximum-security Maine State Prison. Corrections commissioner Randall Liberty now reports that there’s been “a really good decline”: assaults down 40 percent so far in 2019.

Such assaults at the state prison alone during the first six months of 2019, he said, are down by 69 percent when compared to the same period last year. This was achieved largely by separating inmates “doing disciplinary time” from the general population.

We also reported in March that the total Maine prisoner population — which has doubled since 1980 — had continued to increase significantly in the last few years. It stood at 2,343 on March 18. But Liberty said that on July 7 the number was 2,258 — a 4-percent reduction. The state prison held 982 men at the end of 2018. Now, it holds 915.

From the perspective of reform, these developments are improvements, although inmate numbers have often fluctuated, and Liberty can’t take credit for the reduction in population. There’s “an overall trend of lower rates of incarceration statewide,” he said. “We’re not certain if this will continue to hold, but it is true for the state and counties” (referring to county jails). Some elements of the perennially troubled Maine prison system, however, remain unchanged. Like many other department chiefs, Liberty — who has strongly expressed a desire for reform — has a fiscal millstone around his  neck in the form of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ no-tax-increase pledge, setting in concrete Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s tax cuts for the rich.

In an interview, Liberty wryly told me: “When you don’t ask, you don’t get anything.” He wasn’t allowed to ask. Thus, after the end of the recently concluded legislative session, he still has no state funds for prisoner rehabilitation.

Liberty also said his staffing woes continue. Maine State Prison is down 26 employees, and the prison system overall is down 40. Higher salaries might help solve this problem. He has a tentative agreement, he said, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to raise salaries 3 percent this year and 4 percent next year.

Let’s put those numbers in perspective. An AFSCME official told The Free Press in March that the starting wage in the state prison is $16.10 an hour for the dangerous work of a guard. Three percent of $16.10 is 48 cents.

The Department of Corrections had been scheduled to receive a 7-percent appropriation increase for the next two fiscal years. But when the session adjourned June 20, the department was booked to receive only 6 percent more (to $395 million). That’s $3 million less than the governor had originally said it would get.

Legislative punting

In the Legislature, recent criminal-justice developments are largely a story of deferrals.

The biggest issue in the session was whether Corrections would be allowed to move the 250 or so women prisoners from their crowded facilities at the medium-security Maine Correctional Center in Windham to the youth prison, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, which now has only 50 inmates and 120 empty beds.

The Mills administration wants to give over much of Long Creek to women, but opposition arose from organizations including the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Maine Women’s Lobby.

These groups don’t want, as MPAC’s legislative coordinator, Peter Lehman, said, “to take resources from juveniles” and at the same time “expand the number of beds for women.”

Whitney Parrish, of the Maine Women’s Lobby, opposed putting women in Long Creek because “building more beds without getting to the underlying root causes of our incarceration crisis . . . does not solve the public-health crisis that is fueling [criminal] convictions across the state,” as she said in her written testimony to legislators.

Women are mostly in prison, she said, “for drug and theft-related crimes, largely fueled by substance-use disorder, mental-health challenges and trauma, crimes of poverty and desperation, and domestic-violence-related convictions where they were likely not the predominant aggressor.” She added: “We hear about women who stole groceries for their children.”

The result of the Long Creek deliberations was the acceptance of Portland Democratic Rep. Michael Brennan’s idea of a task force to look broadly at juvenile justice in Maine, especially at alternatives to incarceration. Although the administration wants to move the remaining young people into the community, there was no plan in place for it, prisoner advocates said.

That planning is the assignment that’s been given to the new 32-member task force. The group includes the usual officials, but also many community members, including MPAC’s director, Joseph Jackson.  A report will go to the next regular legislative session in January. Commissioner Liberty said it was “still our desire to relocate” women to Long Creek.

Under the same heading of deferring things, “the biggest achievement” of the past session, said Lehman, was what is called in legislative language the “carrying over” of several criminal-justice-reform bills until the January session.

He spoke without irony: the alternative probably would have been defeat. In a similar low-expectations vein, Jan Collins, MPAC’s assistant director, said the session’s biggest accomplishment was impressing legislators “with the fact that inmates are people.”

Among the actions deferred:

• A working group will look at how to open up opportunities, if exonerating evidence surfaces, for court post-conviction reviews. Lehman said there was “very powerful, emotional testimony” in favor of a bill — sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, of Friendship — to create the reviews, but Attorney General Aaron Frey testified against it.

But, surprising him, Lehman said Frey later “came up to me in the hallway and told me he had changed his mind and was asking the Judiciary Committee to carry the bill over into the next session to find an acceptable solution” to the post-conviction issue.

• A bill created a working group on mental-health issues in Maine. Since at least half of prison and jail inmates have mental-health diagnoses that likely contributed to where they wound up, this potentially could be an important development for the criminal-justice system. Then again, mental-health issues have been studied by Maine officials for a long time, and during this time, arguably, mental-health services in the state have gotten worse.

Still, MPAC’s Collins saw this study as promising. By December 4, a report must be produced, including a “mental health plan for the state.”

• The establishment of a “drug court” in the midcoast was the subject of another bill pushed onto the next session. Such courts have a good record in keeping people out of prison and jail, but they’re expensive in the short term: $1.3 million a year in this case, for 25 people served. That’s a key reason the Legislature balks at them. But they’re extremely cost-effective in the long run. (See my 2017 article, “‘Lack of will ...,” at pinetreewatch.org.)

• Also carried over was a bill that would have established four regional mental-health “receiving” centers, designed to relieve the enormous burden on the police and hospital emergency rooms because of the thousands of critically mentally ill Maine people on the streets, in homeless shelters, and in their homes.

• Another bill envisioning a broad study was carried over: of how Corrections could “reduce recidivism and control correctional-facility costs,” including using “alternative sentencing” and “mental-health and substance-use-disorder treatment.”

• On bail reform, which is the subject of a national movement, two bills were carried over that aim at keeping people out of jail because they’re too poor to make bail or they violate technical bail conditions.

Some reform bills passed

A few reform bills passed. These bills Lehman described as “major things that seem minor.”

• A permanent, independent panel was created to examine the controversial use of “deadly force” by the police in each instance it occurs. This was another victory for Evangelos, who had been troubled when an 18-year-old from his area, Gregori Jackson, was killed by a policeman after a traffic stop.

Last year, following a rash of police killings, the Bangor Daily News determined that “in its more than 100 reviews of police use of deadly force since 1990, the attorney general’s office has never found that an officer was not justified in his actions.”

Evangelos said the panel will be broad-based, will look at serious injuries as well as deaths, and “puts Maine among four states that have adopted such critical independent oversight.” Actions by corrections officers will be covered, too, “so in the rare case of a prisoner getting brutalized or worse while in custody, the panel will also be able to review this.”

But wait: Wasn’t there a study already? In late 2017, then-Attorney General Janet Mills formed a panel to delve into the same subject. This year the AG’s Office released the panel’s report, the first recommendation of which was to expand access to mental-health treatment in the state. In discussions of criminal-justice issues, lacks in mental-health services are a relentless refrain.

• Women prisoners will be able to get tampons and other “menstrual products” despite the grumbling of Rep. Richard Pickett (R-Dixfield), a retired cop serving on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, that the correctional system “was never meant to be a country club.” That comment got him national headlines. Commissioner Liberty testified to legislators that such items were fully available in the prisons, but there was contradictory testimony on that point.

Why wouldn’t these things freely be provided to prisoners? “I think it’s humiliation” of the women, Collins said. In the end Pickett voted for the move. Rep. Chris Johansen (R-Monticello), another retired cop, was the lone opponent in the committee vote.

• A bill passed to modestly expand “community confinement,” reducing time some prisoners spend behind bars. “It was like a bombshell,” Lehman said, that everyone on the Criminal Justice Committee supported the bill.

The Corrections Department also supported it and said the department didn’t need more money to make it work for 50 to 60 people, Jan Collins said. But it’s being held by the governor until the start of the next session — when within three days she must veto her “held over” bills or let them become law — while she makes up her mind about it.

• Prison-system-wide medical treatment for substance abuse — a common need of entering prisoners — began July 1 with a pilot project involving 50 inmates in several prisons, Liberty said. It’s funded by $500,000 from the state Department of Health and Human Services. Liberty expected it to “slowly grow throughout the entire system over a six-month period.” A bill that would provide an additional $2 million a year for the program was carried over until the next legislative session.

• Another study: A commission was established to “examine multiple strategies for addressing issues related to the continually and rapidly increasing prisoner populations at both the county or regional jail and state prison levels,” with a report due in less than five months. Both prison reformers and law-enforcement leaders, however, already are clear on needed strategies, such as (I’m risking repetition) proper funding of mental-health care.

• In-person visits to prisoners will be allowed at county jails unless there’s a security risk. This is aimed at stopping the movement among jails to use closed-circuit TV. The ACLU of Maine had condemned this tendency: “Studies have shown that prisoners who have in-person family visits while in jail are less likely to misbehave while in custody and are less likely to be convicted of crimes after being released.”

Disappointments

“Ban the box” bills were MPAC’s highest priority during the session. These would eliminate the box common on employment applications where the applicant checks off whether he or she has been convicted of a crime. The “box” is “a huge ball and chain around the ankles” of ex-prisoners, Collins said.

A bill that would ban the box on initial housing applications was carried over, but a bill did get passed to eliminate the box in state-government job applications, though it will only affect a small number of people. 

In a development that could be classified as a failure or a success depending on one’s perspective, the Legislature agreed with Mills to open a new 50-inmate minimum-security prison, a pre-release center in Machiasport that will cost up to $8 million to build. It will replace the 150-inmate Downeast Correctional Facility, which Governor LePage closed. It will be built on the site of the old prison.

MPAC didn’t take a position on this issue. Prison reformers usually are opposed to the construction of new prisons. Their fundamental response to America’s historic incarceration of millions of, chiefly, very poor young men (over 90 percent of prisoners are male) is to demand that prison populations be reduced. But a pre-release center will help prisoners nearing their release date adapt to the outside world, primarily by letting them work during the day in the community.

Whether the new prison would be good for prisoners, however, was not foremost in this political decision. Cheap labor for community businesses and preserving staff jobs (though only 15 as opposed to several times that many at the previous prison) were priorities for Washington County’s legislative delegation and the prison guards’ union, AFSCME.

What does it add up to?

In the background, the biggest disappointments for reformers were the funds that weren’t appropriated or even considered to make major changes, such as for a robust, statewide mental-health-care system and the robust rehabilitation of prisoners during their time behind bars. But these things weren’t expected, and no big-money bills to address them were promoted.

Reformers clearly understand that Mills and many legislators refuse to touch a state tax system that for some time has come down more heavily on the poor and middle class than on the rich. This year, even a deeply Democratic Legislature wouldn’t lower the amount exempted from the estate tax from $5.6 million to $2 million, as had been proposed. The bigger the exemption, the bigger the benefit to millionaires. But the proposal will be taken up again in the next session.

Criminal-justice reforms are “incremental,” Lehman observed. With the carried-over bills and studies begun this session, “there’s a real focus on the problems,” he said, if not yet the solutions. Collins said the creation of study groups on these issues sounds “like it’s a cop-out,” but the studies mean “there will be a big-picture view” that could portend well for the future.

Things move so slowly in the Legislature, she said, “because you have to educate” legislators. Many of them may not be familiar with specific issues, and a legislative session covers a lot of subjects. She added, optimistically, “It feels like legislators are willing to listen in a way they haven’t in the past.”

(MPAC’s minutes of a recent meeting noted that, among the most active legislators in working for criminal-justice reform, were the midcoast’s Evangelos; Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center, a Rockland Democrat; and Rep. William Pluecker, an Independent from Warren.)

“Nothing ever passes the first time” is a saying sometimes heard around the State House. If true, there’s a chance next year for significant criminal-justice reform. Yet political reforms — not just on these issues — seem to have a hard time going deeper than the margins, even when there’s wide agreement that enormous wrongs need to be righted. Why this is the case is a subject Deep State hopes to explore further.