MANCHESTER – Maine, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, appears to be losing a disproportionate number of prisoners to suspicious deaths within its segregation facilities.

This seems somewhat odd in view of the concerted effort that the Department of Corrections undertook over the past month to defend itself against L.D. 1611.

That was a bill intended to put reasonable restraints on the use and abuse of segregation within Maine’s prisons.

The department pulled out all the stops in opposing the bill, succeeding in reducing it down to a resolve to study itself.

Not only did the department call on scores of employees to testify against the bill, they corralled numerous others to wear protest stickers and lobby in the halls of the State House, an uncomfortable picture of the activities of our state employees.

Yet, three people have died within the past year either within segregation or barely out of segregation.

First, Sheldon Weinstein — Jewish, brilliant, wheelchair-bound and a dropout from Boston University Medical School — died of a ruptured spleen on April 24, 2009, within about two hours after I requested that he be given toilet paper. His death is reported to have been the result of an assault received four days earlier.

Then Victor Valdez, segregated under suspicious circumstances, was rushed from segregation to the infirmary at Maine State Prison and was reported to have died there.

Now, George Magee at the Androscoggin County Jail, who hanged himself in a segregation cell at receiving in full view of security.

He was placed there under observation for refusing his medicine. Yet, he is reported to have hanged himself with pieces of ripped bed sheets.

What is going on here? If you are not safe in segregation, where can you be safe within a prison?

Two of these prisoners — Weinstein and Magee — were convicted sex offenders.

Weinstein had confessed to molesting a family member, and Magee had violated the terms of his probation by living with a woman with minor children.

Let me share with you what I believe in going on here. As a chaplain, I became instrumental in breaking up a loosely held gang in the Medium Custody Unit at Maine State Prison that called itself the “Rat and Skinner Patrol.”

“Skinner” is the pejorative term for a sex offender, commonly beaten within the prison, while “rat” is the term for a beaten prisoner who informs on who beat him (or a chaplain who tells what is going on there).

Traditionally, beaten “skinners” were placed in segregation for interminable periods of time, while the perpetrators, if caught, were put into the “hole” for five to 10 days.

During the last legislative session, Corrections successfully lobbied to place the 15 county jails (or corrections institutions) under its limited jurisdiction in order to institute uniform compliance with accepted corrections standards.

This jurisdiction was placed under the authority of the Board of Corrections, itself under the intense scrutiny and assistance of the department.

Corrections has a favorite phrase to deflect criticism: “We are operating within nationally accepted standards.”

In talking with my brother in Rhode Island, however, a psychologist with a counseling practice for sex offenders in the Rhode Island and Massachusetts prison systems, he had not known of one case of a sex offender beating over the past 20 or more years of his practice.

Yet, the bias against sex offenders within the guard culture in the prison and jail system in Maine is notorious.

I know from my own experience that the accepted practice in Maine for all too many guards is to look the other way, or even to tacitly promote abuse of certain prisoners under their protection.

That is the systemic cultural miasma that the department is desperately trying to fix before it gets out of control.

I have news for these good people. It may already be out of control.

Transparency and accountability are the two accepted standards that will repair the damage, albeit not for Sheldon Weinstein, Victor Valdez and George Magee — or those who still profess to have loved them.

 

– Special to the Press Herald

 

Correction

 

A Maine Voices column on page A12 Thursday misidentified dairy cows as veal calves and incorrectly claimed that a Gorham farmer had sold his land for development.