Corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte told the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee on January 16 that, because of state personnel law, he couldn't publicly say — until severance negotiations are finished — why he had fired, six days earlier, Maine State Prison warden Patricia Barnhart. She has said she can't say why, either.
OUT WITHOUT WARNING Ex-Maine State Prison warden Patricia Barnhart.
But a likely reason is that Barnhart didn't go along with the program: Ponte's aggressive two-year-old effort to reform the prison.
Here's a major clue. When asked in an interview what sort of new warden he would seek, Ponte replied he wanted somebody skilled in the "change process."
Here's another clue. Ponte has named Rod Bouffard the acting warden at Warren. One of the most experienced change agents in the prison system, Bouffard reformed the Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland. He transformed it from one of the harshest juvenile lockups in the country to a treatment-oriented model studied all over the country for its success in reducing recidivism, the return to criminal behavior after inmates are released.
In a brief interview, Bouffard, who said he wouldn't apply to become the permanent warden because Warren is too far from his home in the Portland area, tellingly commented on his plans for the prison: "I'm definitely going to soften it" — a stunning remark from a corrections official. Bouffard said treating prisoners with respect begets better-behaved prisoners.
When it was suggested the prison's "old boys' network" may resist change, he replied: "Well, they'd better hang on. I've experienced that more than once in my career," referring to staff resistance to reform at Long Creek.
He added: "My philosophy is very different from most people in corrections." It's more like Commissioner Ponte's, he said. Ponte has said: "We're not in the business of punishment, but corrections."
Here's a third clue: Prison reformers have long viewed Barnhart as a reform roadblock, too willing to accept the old ways. And they suspect that a recent alleged assault by a Maine State Prison guard captain on a handcuffed prisoner, Renardo Williams, had something to do with Barnhart's firing.
In a telephone interview, Williams, serving 15 years for drug trafficking, gave his version of the Christmas Eve incident: After he objected to what he saw as harassment from the captain and a couple of other guards, the captain had handcuffs put on him. Told to sit down, he responded, "I choose to stand." Then, Williams said, the captain "tackled me," knocking his legs from under him, and both fell down.
Prisoner-rights advocates have complained for years that this officer bullied inmates. He reportedly has been suspended or fired. The Corrections department didn't reply by deadline to a request for his status. (Because the Phoenix wasn't able to reach him before deadline, his name is being withheld.)
Maine NAACP director Rachel Talbot Ross said the group plans to meet with Williams, an African American, to discuss the incident. Williams has been transferred to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham because, he said, "I feared for my life" from the captain's friends and family working at the state prison.
In an interview, Ponte said he couldn't comment on the incident because an investigation is going on. "It had nothing to do" with Barnhart's dismissal, he said.