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Miraculous Appearances

Phoenix questions prompt action
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 17, 2009

Two weeks after the Phoenix began its prison Board of Visitors interviews, which revealed the group had not produced annual reports as required by law and had not met with the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee in years, reports for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 suddenly materialized.

Written recently by board chairman Jon Wilson, they were distributed July 29 in Augusta at a Criminal Justice Committee meeting, which all Board of Visitors members attended to hear Wilson address the committee.

Wilson's remarks were full of apologies about the board's deficiencies in reporting and expressions of his confusion about the board's role, for which he repeatedly asked the committee for guidance.

'We're not doing the job either," replied Representative Richard Sykes, a Harrison Republican, on the question of guidance. Indeed, several committee members appeared to have been unaware or only vaguely aware of prison boards of visitors, which exist also for other state correctional facilities.

However, Representative Veronica Magnan, a Stockton Springs Democrat, told Wilson, "I'm kind of surprised that you haven't sat down and said what can [the board] do and what do we want to do."

Wilson gave the committee an overview of his brand-new annual reports, which contain a good deal of documentation of the prison's problems, lucidly expressed (Wilson is a professional writer). The reports would have been helpful to the public if they had been released when they were required because they document, from year to year, rising prison tension and declining staff morale. They might even have helped prevent some of the recent prison tragedies.

The reports connect tension — between guards and inmates, inmates and other inmates, and between groups of employees — to staff shortages, high staff turnover, and reduced inmate rehabilitation and recreation programs. A theme in the reports is the progressively harmful effect of budget cuts by the Legislature and governor.

With rehabilitation programs cut, the prison has been "forced to become a 'warehouse,'" Wilson writes. He validates many inmate complaints, including the prison's "confiscatory" mail-interception policy and misallocation by the administration of funds dedicated to inmate betterment. The practice of allowing supervisory employees to retire and then be rehired immediately — "double dipping" — has a "dampening effect" on staff advancement, he reports. But recommendations for reform in the reports are few and weakly expressed and expressions of confidence in Warden Jeffrey Merrill are many.

The committee said it wanted to hear responses from prison officials at a future meeting.

Related: Secret, unaccountable, and co-opted, Time for law to end torture, Putting an end to the hunger strike, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Education, Higher Education,  More more >
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 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY

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