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Despite Two Homicides in Nine Months, Top Prison Official Touts Safety Record
03/07/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said prisons in Maine are safer now than they were three years ago despite two homicides at the Maine State Prison in the past nine months and the recent attack of a program worker by three teenage inmates at the Long Creek Correctional Center. In a briefing with reporters, Ponte defended staffing and funding levels and a new system for tracking violent incidents.

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About a month ago corrections officer Don Piper said there was a fight between two inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham where he's worked for 28 years. Piper was working solo. But he said there were 85 inmates under his watch. And as he waited for backup, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with his odds.

"It was on a weekend," said Piper. "I handled it quick, called for help and it was five minutes. Five minutes is a long time when it's one guy against 85. Everybody else is not your friend there."

Piper said understaffing is a chronic problem at the Maine Correctional Center, a medium security facility, where it's not unusual for one officer to be keeping track of 80-some prisoners who are free to move about the unit. Piper is also troubled with what he said is the changing population at MCC.

"We have several inmates that are doing life or are considered close custody inmates," he said. "I believe there's just a little under 30 at this time. The unit where I work was a minimum unit. It's now been changed to a medium unit and the doors do not lock. We have way more medium people and close custody inmates that we ever had before."

Close custody inmates are considered the highest risk to public safety. But Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said a new incident mapping system adopted by the prison system in 2012 has helped prison staff track incidents such as assaults and disciplinary problems and then drill down on why they are occurring. Each month, the heads of each facility reports these findings to the central office along with a plan on how they'll address them.

"We've had a great success with staff and facilities understanding that there is measurements that we're going to hold them accountable to and that we expect results," Ponte said. "All of our facilities' performances have been positive."

Ponte said that doesn't mean there are not problems that need to be addressed. A high rate of staff turnover is one ongoing challenge. But Ponte said he doesn't see a general ramping up of violence at the Maine State Prison where just last week inmate Michah Boland was allegedly "hog-tied" and stabbed 87 times by another inmate in his cell. 35-year-old Richard Stahursky has since been charged with Boland's murder. Ponte said, in general, prison officials are not finding large numbers of weapons in inmates' cells.

"A lot of times when you have violence in an institution, you're gonna see other inmates start to arm themselves because they're afraid," he said. "We're not finding that. We do a lot of searches. We just did, from this event, searching our higher risk units, our close units and we did not find one weapon. Now, I guess the other side of that was, could you miss some? Well, obviously, you can."

But it's the weapons that are missed that concern guards like Don Piper and his union representative Jim Mackie of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. This week Mackie wrote a letter to lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee asking them to support the purchase of protective "stab vests" for 600 prison guards. He said he wrote it, in part, thinking of the female corrections officer who was confronted by Stahursky after Boland's killing with two homemade knives in his cell.

"He walked out of there, calm as could be; walked to the desk where she was sitting like you, just kind of doing her thing and dropped the shivs on the table and said, you might want to hook me up," Mackie said. "You know, that female officer was so fortunate. He could have very easily used them on her."

Ponte acknowledges that the female guard was also dealing with a guard-inmate ratio similar to Piper's at the Maine Correctional Center: about 70 or 80 inmates on her watch. But Ponte said he's comfortable with that ratio, one that has remained fairly stable in the prison system. What's more important, he said, is knowing why violent incidents occur so they can be prevented in the future.

"There is nobody in my position that would give you guarantees that this will never happen in my facility unless we're just gonna lock 'em down and never let them interact," Ponte said.

In Ponte's view, throwing everyone in lockdown is not a solution but he said that doesn't mean it might not be appropriate for certain individuals.

"At the end of the day, if we need to blame somebody, I'm it," Ponte said. "I'll be blamed. I think we have a sizeable number of very good people doing very good work in Maine that I'm proud of. I think the odds are almost impossible on the task that we ask them to do but they do great work. And I feel our facilities are safer today than they ever have been in Maine, dealing with more inmates."

Over the past two years the number of inmates at the Windham Correctional Center has increased from 552 to 631 and the number of inmates at the Maine State Prison has risen from 834 to just over 900. Funding and staffing, however, have remained about the same.


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