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Lock-up lessons

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 14, 2011

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But can it work for adult prisoners?

So why hasn’t there been more treatment, as opposed to punishment, in Maine’s adult prison system?

“A good question,” Stoodley replies. Though juvenile brains are still developing, “There are opportunities in the adult system," he says. "Nobody stops learning.”

Ponte, his boss, has similar thoughts. He says he’s encouraging “all administrators to look at the juvenile system.” There’s much to learn from every feature of it, he says. “Nobody is satisfied with adult Maine corrections. . . . A lot of things need fixing.”

He expects resistance, describing a conversation he had with a veteran unit manager during a recent visit to Long Creek. The man told him that when the tough attitude toward the kids was forbidden, “I knew that it was not going to work” — but, to his surprise, it did.

“We need to teach people different ways of doing things,” Ponte says, mentioning as priorities for reform the issues of prisoner mental health and “segregation” — solitary confinement. Convincing staff that the new approach will not make the prisons unsafe will be an especially hard task. But he makes it clear he expects employees to get on board.

He adds, though: “We may not be able to afford everything we want.” It's relatively expensive to provide treatment. The per-resident annual cost to taxpayers at Long Creek is $149,000 (there are 195 staffers for 110 kids). At the Maine State Prison it’s $47,000. Including the next-door Bolduc unit, the prison says it has 410 on staff for over 1000 prisoners.

But some changes can be accomplished without a big infusion of money. Ponte mentions the use of volunteers, saying he wants the public “to interact with inmates.”

In a recent statement Judy Garvey and other activist leaders said they had been encouraged by a meeting with Ponte. But, more important, Ponte will have to get the governor’s office and the Legislature aboard. Legislators have shown themselves eager to make political points with a get-tough-on-criminals attitude. As for Paul LePage, “If it were up to me, I’d find a dungeon very cheaply and house them all,” our trash-talking governor recently described his attitude toward prisoners, according to the Maine Campus newspaper, covering a speech he made to a class at the University of Maine at Farmington.

But like much trash talk, such remarks perhaps shouldn’t be taken seriously. After all, LePage chose Ponte.

Lance Tapley can be reached at lance.tapley@gmail.com.

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  Topics: News Features , Jody Breton, Maine, Prisons,  More more >
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