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Prison in turmoil

Investigators probe killing, stabbing, corruption allegations
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  June 17, 2009

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By the time Warden Jeffrey Merrill revealed on June 3 that three Maine State Prison employees had been put on paid leave as a result of a state police investigation of an inmate’s death in April, probes of corruption and other issues at the 925-inmate lockup had already cast a harsh light on its management.

Governor John Baldacci said on June 4 he was “concerned about the apparent circumstances of the death” of 64-year-old sex offender Sheldon Weinstein, who died in his cell in the Warren prison’s solitary-confinement “Supermax” unit on April 24. He had been beaten four days earlier, and police are investigating inmates as suspects in what they term a homicide.

But several prison sources said Weinstein also had been refused proper medical treatment, and that this is the reason the employees were put on leave. On June 10, the Maine State Police said he died of “blunt force trauma,” but would confirm little else.

A prison chaplain, former state representative Stan Moody, of Manchester, said he hopes Weinstein’s death “will lead to widespread reform” within the prison. “Sadly, change often comes about through tragedy.” He believes he was one of the last people to talk with Weinstein.

Commenting on the prison’s mounting troubles, Baldacci also said in his June 4 statement he was confident Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson “will take appropriate disciplinary steps, if necessary, and correct any identified problems” at the prison. He expressed “complete confidence” in Magnusson: “He has been aggressive in his pursuit of allegations that have been made concerning the treatment of prisoners or other activities within the prison system.”

Weinstein, who — in addition to injuries from his beating — suffered from diabetes, had moved about the prison in a wheelchair. He had asked for medical attention in the late afternoon of the day of his death, it was refused “because he’s a sex offender,” and he was found dead in his cell when guards did the 6 pm “count” of prisoners, according to Michael James, a Supermax inmate at the time who was interviewed at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, where he is now a patient.

James said Weinstein had been beaten by inmates because he was a “skinner,” the prison slang for sex offender. Several prisoners reportedly have been put in the Supermax’s isolation cells as suspects in the beating, but officials would not confirm this. Violent inmates often target sex offenders. After his beating, Weinstein was moved out of the prison’s general population to a cell in the Supermax (officially called the Special Management Unit).

Officials would not identify the employees placed on leave in the incident, who now face an internal investigation. James said guards as well as prisoners treated Weinstein with hostility. Despite the shadow over the prison’s treatment of Weinstein’s injuries, Maine State Police spokesman Stephen McCausland said his agency was “not looking at Corrections personnel as having any role” in the homicide.

Arrested in 2007, Weinstein, a retired salesman, had been sentenced last fall to two years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault several years ago against a young girl, a relative, in Berwick, where his family has a home. His residence in recent years had been in New Hartford, New York, though he stayed in Berwick awaiting the outcome of his criminal case.

His widow, Janet Weinstein, of New Hartford, said her estranged husband had broken a shoulder and a leg in a fall from a bunk at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, but had recently been transferred to the Warren prison because of his need for physical rehabilitation.

“Why was a 64-year-old man sentenced to a sex crime, in a wheelchair, [put] in the general population?” of a maximum-security prison, she asked, very upset, in a phone interview.

Her lawyer, Scott Gardner, of Saco, who represented Sheldon Weinstein in his sex-abuse case, said as a convicted sex abuser Weinstein “was hypersensitive to his own safety,” and he would have protested any risk he faced. He described Weinstein as “extremely frail.”

Gardner said a suit against the state for damages is under consideration.

The state police officer who had called Janet Weinstein on June 10 to tell her the death was a homicide provided few details in a “confusing” conversation, she said. And when she was informed of his death in April a Corrections Department officer had told her that her husband had died “apparently from natural causes,” she said.

(Ironically, before he entered the prison system, Weinstein had called the Phoenix to express fears that, because he was a diabetic, he would “be killed” by the prison diet.)

This case is not the only recent example of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. On June 3 Warden Merrill told the Rockland Herald Gazette that a prisoner had been recently stabbed by another prisoner using a “shank,” a homemade knife. The victim was not seriously injured, and the suspect was put in the Supermax, he said, but he disclosed little other information. Last year, Magnusson, in discussing a hostage-taking incident at the prison, told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, “There are probably 300 inmates right now with a weapon in their hand.” Legislators expressed no interest in this fact.

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Related: Pressure rising, Falling down, Lawmakers to probe prison, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Crime,  More more >
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