Patricia Barnhart may have had no idea that she was getting fired on the spot Thursday. By all accounts she was not the only one who was shocked. And she probably had no idea who would be the first person to defend her. Jim Mackie is with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93. He represents more than 600 corrections workers and other staff in the Maine prison system. He does not represent the warden.
"Folks who know me know that I don't usually stand up and speak on behalf of managers except for when I meet one who I really think has a great working relationship and has the respect of the folks that work for her," Jim Mackie said. "And it's not that the warden was somebody who just rolled over and gave us what we wanted but it was somebody you could sit down with and work through an issue. You knew where you stood. And, quite frankly, in DOC now, that's a very rare individual."
While he said he and his union members have had a good working relationship with Barnhart, Mackie said that hasn't been the case with Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte. He said staff turnover in the Maine State Prison is high, the pay is low and the hours are difficult Many of them haven't received a pay raise in six years. At the same time insurance costs have gone up and Commissioner Ponte has worked to pare millions of dollars from the prison system. To make matters worse, Mackie said staff are continually forced to defend themselves against allegations of abuse by inmates.
"Under this commissioner, since he's taken over, investigations are through the roof," Mackie said. "I spend the vast majority of my week in investigative meetings...if you breathe on an inmate all they have to do is make an accusation. This commissioner is more in tune with protecting the rights of inmates than he is in protecting the rights of the people who work for the state of Maine."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition has a different perspective on the situation. She said her members meet with the commissioner in his office every couple of months. They also occasionally visit with prisoners to discuss issues of concern. And for Garvey the problems at Maine State Prison do not rest with Ponte but with a few, rogue corrections officers.
"First of all, we believe there have been some loose cannons running amok and we've brought that to the attention of the Commissioner and we know that he's been dealing with that," said Garvey. "But we don't know that they're all gone. We hear that some people are still there. Someone may currently be on leave. We don't know."
While Garvey acknowledges that it's difficult to get the complete perspective without being inside the prison everyday, she said there have been concerns that Warden Barnhart was ill-equipped to manage some of the more abusive personalities, holdovers from what Garvey calls "the good-ole boy era." Ponte, she said, is trying to change this.
"And we feel that he does not want prisoners treated in the old way but that he does believe in sound discipline and training and that works to everybody's advantage," Garvey.
Chris Quint of the Maine State Employees Association declined to comment on whether other corrections officers represented by his union had been fired or disciplined this week. Personnel matters cannot be publicly discussed. But Quint said cutbacks in staffing over the past two years have increased the stress inside the prison system. And employee relations with Ponte, who comes from a private prison background, have been strained.
"As opposed to creating, fostering a collaborative work environment that it's more, this is the way we're going and we're ending the discussion now," Quint said.
Lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee are scheduled to meet with Ponte on Wednesday. Democratic Representative Mark Dion of Portland said he expects members will press the commissioner about the warden's departure and the atmosphere inside the prison.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story erroneously indicated that Ponte's meeting with lawmakers was scheduled for Monday.]