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Commissioner Defends Firing of Maine State Prison Warden
01/16/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte today defended the process he used to fire Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart last week, without getting into specifics about why she was let go. In a briefing before the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday morning, Ponte also outlined other priorities for his department, including a $100-million bond that he says is urgently needed to replace the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Susan Sharon has more.

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Commissioner Defends Firing of Maine State Prison
Originally Aired: 1/16/2013 5:30 PM

Commissioner Ponte remained tight-lipped about the reasons for the termination of Barnhart, who had been on the job for three years. "I just came from a meeting with the attorney general and she advised that I can't say anything," he said.

Ponte says he hopes to have the confidential personnel issue resolved in a couple of weeks, and said he would share with committee members the same data he gave to the attorney general to justify his decision. Until then, the warden position can't be posted. But Ponte still hopes to find a permanent replacement within a few months.

"I think a lot of the questions we're getting from the public and individual members of our caucuses is how did this happen? What's the procedural issue?" says Democratic Rep. Mark Dion, an attorney and former sheriff, who co-chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. "I respect the fact that it has to be confidential at this juncture. But where are we in terms of posture of this case?"

Ponte says a meeting with the warden is planned for Wednesday, at which time he hopes a satisfactory agreement can be reached between the state and Barnhart. He told the committee that he followed proper procedures in dismissal of the warden, and said the attorney general agreed.

Speaking with reporters later, Ponte said Barnhart's dismissal was not based on a single incident and did not include other personnel. He also outlined his justification for a $100-million bond to replace the aging Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

"I think it's very urgent - to get to the processes that we need to get to, I think it's urgent that we do that," Ponte said. "I think it's going to save the state a lot of money. Just to maintain that old, physical plant we should be spending millions of dollars every year, where in fact we could build a new system that's gonna cost us some money, but at the end of the day we're going to be saving personnel money because of the efficiencies of the design."

Ponte says a reconfiguration of beds, depending on the new facility's design, could save the state about $4 million a year. But Democratic Sen. Stan Gerzofsky told the commissioner to expect a careful scrutiny from the committee. Gerzofsky says he heard the same arguments about construction of the Maine State Prison in Warren more than a decade ago.

"Somebody was convinced that you could shut down Thomaston - I think it was about 500 beds - you could build Warren, which I think was close to 1,000 beds, and that you didn't need to hire a whole lot more guards because the sight of view and modern technology. Well, we blew the roof off of overtime, so we're gonna be critical because it's $100 million that we're talking about," Gerzofsky says.

In addition to the new prison bond, the Maine Department of Corrections is also pursuing legislation that would allow first-time offenders between the ages of 18 and 24 to be housed at the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston. Currently it accommodates juvenile offenders between the ages of 11 and 21.

Barry Stoodley, associate commissioner for the Division of Juvenile Corrections, says the 133-bed facility has extra capacity. But more importantly, he says there is research to justify the policy change.

"Brain research that I know that most folks are well aware of has changed immensely over the past few years and it's clear that most people at the age of 18 don't really have a fully-functional frontal lobe," Stoodley says. "They're not able to make the kinds of decisions that we would expect of adults."

Stoodley says the policy change could siginicantly improve the way this difficult population is managed and treated. But committee members indicated that, too, will be getting a critical look, since it is a departure from standard practice.


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