Penal future

Will LePage's zeal to cut the budget make prisoners and guards bleed?
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  November 10, 2010

The few things that Republican Governor-elect Paul LePage was reported as saying on crime-and-punishment issues during the campaign mostly sounded harsh and, of course, right-wing. He favors bringing back the death penalty and preventing sick inmates from receiving expensive medical procedures. (He wouldn't give the Phoenix an interview during the campaign and wouldn't answer questions e-mailed after his election.)

With state government facing a $1.2-billion budget shortfall, however, LePage's and the new Republican-controlled legislature's priority is not likely to be inventing ways to be harsher to prisoners.

But harshness could result from further cuts to the Department of Corrections budget, already starved under Governor John Baldacci. An activist concerned with conditions within the Maine State Prison in Warren, George Swanson, sees this result coming, and it won't affect only prisoners.

"The meanness of conservative policies," he says, is "bad news for the guards in the prison. They are going to be continually asked to treat mentally ill people with Mace, handcuffs, shackles, with them chained to the floor . . . They're going to be asked to continue to do an impossible job with impossible tools" while working forced overtime at low pay, and in "increasingly dangerous conditions."

On the other hand, LePage's zeal for not spending state money could make common cause with legislators who see cost savings in prison reform — and even make common cause with Swanson and other outspoken critics of Maine's and America's 30-year obsession with mass incarceration.

Both legislators and reformers would like to reduce inmate numbers by keeping more mentally ill people out of the jails and prisons, who populate them in vast numbers. Keeping just one person out of prison saves a lot of money. Dividing the Maine State Prison annual budget of $38 million by its 920 prisoners gives a cost of $41,000 per inmate.

And both reformers and some legislators would like to lessen the use of the state prison's 132-cell Special Management Unit, or supermax, a magnet for criticism because of its solitary confinement, which causes and worsens mental illness. Half of its inmates are seriously mentally ill, most are nonviolent (or were beforehand), and typically are there for rule infractions.

But the supermax is also super-expensive because it is labor-intensive. National studies show supermaxes cost two to three times more to build and operate than regular imprisonment.

LePage "has a strong history of working on behalf of people with mental illness, winning an award for that work from Kennebec Behavioral Health," says Shenna Bellows, the Maine Civil Liberties Union director, in an e-mail. "We are looking forward to working with him to address the treatment of prisoners with mental illness in solitary confinement." Kennebec Behavioral Health is a mental-health-treatment agency.

Bellows adds: "Improving prison conditions makes fiscal sense as well as being the right thing to do."

The MCLU helped lead the fight in the last legislative session to pass LD 1611, the bill that would have restricted solitary to 45 days and banned it for the seriously mentally ill. It was defeated, but the Legislature ordered a study of the issue.

LePage-era fiscal notes are also being struck by the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which usually argues for reform on humanitarian grounds.

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