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Federal investigation requested

More prison turmoil
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  July 22, 2009

Stirred into action by the murder of a wheelchair-bound prisoner, human-rights activists have asked the federal Department of Justice to investigate the treatment of Maine State Prison inmates.

In a conference call with DOJ Special Litigation Section investigator Ayanna Brown on July 13, representatives of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and other prison-issue activists described what MCLU attorney Zachary Heiden calls the 925-man Warren prison’s “systemic issues.”

These include inadequate psychiatric and medical care, lack of protection against violence for the most vulnerable prisoners, and stress on overworked guards, according to the activists.

In April, sex offender Sheldon Weinstein, 64, was beaten in his cell and died a few days later. The Maine State Police and prison staff are conducting investigations of his death, with inmates as the suspects, but questions have arisen about the responsibility of prison staff.

A prisoner recently was stabbed by another prisoner, and last year an inmate held hostage at knife-point the prison librarian and an inmate. In 2006 a mentally ill prisoner in the solitary-confinement Supermax unit hanged himself — after being taunted to do so by a guard, according to occupants of nearby cells.

Prisoners, their families, defense attorneys, and activists have long complained about inmate medical and mental-health care and about physical and mental abuse of prisoners by guards in the 100-man Supermax (officially, the Special Management Unit). Several lawsuits against prison officials on the grounds of abusive treatment are proceeding in federal court.

A retired community social worker, Freda Plumley, says she complained in the conference call that Department of Corrections officials and the attorney general’s office have prevented her from even approaching Corrections with complaints about inmate medical care: “They were quite clear they won’t accept referrals from me.”

She protested to Steven Rowe when he was attorney general, but never received a reply, she says. Plumley tries to help prisoners as part of her work with an Augusta church. “Citizens should be able to contact officials,” she says. Rowe, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, says he doesn’t recall correspondence from Plumley.

Ira Scherr, a former Maine State Prison guards’ union president who no longer works at the prison, says he made the case in the conference call that stress on short-staffed, overworked guards has negative effects on their treatment of inmates.

A DOJ spokesman in Washington, Alejandro Miyar, says the department is considering the allegations and no formal investigation has begun. He says it could take some time before the department decides how to respond.

The MCLU’s Heiden, though, says the department “can be pretty quick” in investigating and demanding corrective action once it decides to get involved. The Special Litigation Section, part of the Office of Civil Rights, is broadly empowered to protect the legal rights of people confined in public institutions. If state officials don’t correct deficiencies, DOJ can sue them. The Office of Civil Rights's Web site notes that recently the Special Litigation Section has been focused on prisoners’ “unmet mental health needs.”

The prison is already being investigated on other fronts. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee and the agency that reports to it, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, have been looking into charges of corruption among prison officials and inadequacy of inmate medical care.

The Corrections Department said in a statement that it was unaware of the discussions with federal officials and is “open to any concerns” of the organizations involved.

Related: A mysterious new inmate death, Screams from solitary, Suspect speaks; victim’s family begins $1-million-plus lawsuit, More more >
  Topics: News Features , U.S. Government, U.S. State Government, Sheldon Weinstein,  More more >
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