MANCHESTER – Tuesday’s edition of The Portland Press Herald carried an article (“State prison warden reports progress, cites lack of staff”) on the Department of Corrections’ response to the report on the Maine State Prison issued a year earlier by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

The OPEGA report cited a systemic culture of “intimidation, harassment, discrimination and a strong sense of a ‘good old boy’ network” within the prison administration.

Improvements in staff morale and programming were alleged in the response by Warden Patricia Barnhart, who noted that she detected the improvements by listening to all parties and holding town hall-style meetings with staff.

Citing a new culture of “accountability,” the warden and Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson pointed out a lack of qualified correctional officers and continued hamstringing by budget cutbacks and poor working conditions, contributing to “wearing out the staff.”

There were a number of glaring holes in the department’s response to the report:

First, there have been three suspicious deaths in the Maine prison system in the past year centered in or around solitary confinement.

There was no discussion as to what was contributing to this rash of suspicious deaths or what is being done to bring the investigation and prosecution of the parties involved to closure.

Second, the Maine prison system has a long history of investigating itself when something goes awry.

Self-directed investigations are, to most casual observers, not worth the paper on which they are written.

In the alleged new spirit of accountability, no effort has been made by the Department of Corrections to initiate impartial investigations.

In fact, the very OPEGA report in question was defensively dismissed and deflected back to the department by the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety.

L.D. 1611, the bill to limit the use and abuse of solitary confinement, was turned into a resolve for the department to, once again, investigate itself.

Third, there was much in the article about how the calmness of the prison depends on the attitudes of prisoners.

“Prisoners can be my biggest asset if they want to be,” Barnhart said. “This is where they live. If they are calmer, it makes the staff calmer.”

This is the classic chicken-and-egg scenario.

In order to make progress within the prison, we have to keep the prisoners calm.

We can do that in a number of ways, of course — by drugging them, by keeping them busy, by imposing the heavy boot of tyranny or by treating them as human beings entitled to respect due all human beings.

There is the sense throughout the article that the focus is more on staff morale than on the people in their care.

Fourth, in this new climate of accountability, the old warden, Jeff Merrill, either did his job or did not.

If not, the message that you send to those staff members who are trying to do their best is that if you screw up, you will get a cushier job.

I have come to believe that Warden Merrill was fighting a system that was stacked against him.

Fifth, the Lincoln County Superior Court, on May 17, unsealed a sworn deposition in the case of a former guard against the state.

That deposition strongly suggests that there is a practice within Maine State Prison that operates separately from Department of Corrections policies and procedures.

With the OPEGA report and the deposition, there is sufficient information now on the record to raise a reasonable suspicion of a network of staff that sanctions inconsistent discipline, ignores department policies and protects its own with a shield of silence.

If that is so, why have staff dismissals at the prison been limited to those at or near the bottom of the food chain?

We wish the new warden well.

Accountability does not, however, begin at the bottom. It begins at the top.

Re-entry programs and programmed home confinement of nonviolent prisoners — the most viable paths to prison reform — are nearly nonexistent within the prison system.

Keeping prisoners mollified and calm in order that staff may enjoy a happier work experience will never make a dent in the $300 million-a-year corrections growth industry in Maine.