This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. 2/23/13 to clarify Judy Garvey’s opinion of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte work.
The arrest this week of a captain at the Maine State Prison who allegedly assaulted an inmate and last month’s dismissal of the prison warden are indicative of larger problems, say people who are familiar with the workings of the facility in Warren.
Current and former employees, advocates for inmates and even prisoners say the culture at the prison is toxic. Guards are afraid to do their jobs. Inmates are concerned about treatment that is more punitive than rehabilitative. The number of incidents involving prisoners, including assaults, has increased dramatically in the last two months.
Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has brought in new people in an effort to change the culture, but some say Ponte is part of the problem.
“No one wants to work in corrections,” said Jim Mackie, who represents the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that includes prison workers. “If (Ponte) is not firing them, they are quitting. Our feeling is that he’s trying to collapse the system.”
Two former employees have filed complaints claiming they were dismissed for expressing concerns about what they saw in the prison.
James O’Farrell, whose position as deputy warden was eliminated in 2011, filed a lawsuit last month in which he claims that understaffing led directly to the killing of an inmate in May 2011.
Lloyd Millett reportedly was beaten to death by another inmate, Franklin Higgins, in the prison’s woodshop. Higgins is scheduled to stand trial for murder next month.
O’Farrell said Warden Patricia Barnhart told him at one point to stop complaining to Ponte or his job might be at risk. Months later, O’Farrell’s job was eliminated.
“I don’t want to be the guy that saw and heard all these things and never did anything,” he said in an interview.
The prison now has 825 prisoners and a staff of 410, including guards and other staffers such as social workers.
According to information provided to the Portland Press Herald in response to a Freedom of Access request, the number of inmates who were disciplined increased significantly in the last two months.
In December, 119 disciplinary actions were reported, ranging from assault and self-injuries to drug or weapon seizures. In January, there were 152 infractions. The monthly average is about 75, according to the department.
In both January and December, the number of assaults by inmates on inmates was above average, as was the number of cases of self-abuse.
Ponte, who was appointed two years ago by Gov. Paul LePage, is a reform-minded leader with a background in private, for-profit prisons. He has been aggressive in making changes and has been lauded by the governor, among others, for finding budget efficiencies in his department.
Ponte dismissed Barnhart on Jan. 10 for failing to do enough to change things in her three years as warden. She was replaced by Rodney Bouffard, who, like Ponte, has a history of reform. He helped to turn around the former Augusta Mental Health Institute and did the same at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
“We’ve done an assessment and have come up with some things that need to change,” Bouffard said. “With change, people get nervous. I would be surprised if they weren’t. But talk to them in a year and I guarantee they will feel better.”
Mackie, however, said Ponte’s focus on the bottom line is creating problems that he is either ignoring or not taking seriously.
He said Ponte rarely allows overtime, and that has created staffing shortfalls, dangerous working conditions and an increase in incidents at the prison.
In an email response to questions from the Press Herald, Ponte said he would not comment on personnel matters but addressed the staff’s concerns.
“We encourage staff to attend our monthly administrator’s meetings. I hold quarterly round table meetings where line staff can talk about any topic they wish or ask any question about anything,” he wrote. “I guess I would like to know what has been a secret?”
Ponte said his staffing plan for the prison was developed and approved by the prison staff and follows industry standards.
He said he does not make decisions about daily use of overtime but “I do believe we are spending the public’s money, tax dollars, and we should do everything we can to be efficient.”
He praised the staff for doing “very dangerous and difficult work.”
Most incidents at the prison are logged by the staff but aren’t reported publicly. The incident involving Capt. David Cutler, who is now charged with assaulting an inmate, Renardo Williams, on Christmas Eve last year, came to light only after Cutler was arrested Wednesday.
Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, said the Department of Corrections wanted to avoid charging Cutler with assault but was forced to do so after the NAACP met with Williams, who is black, and indicated that it was prepared to take action if Cutler was not charged.
In an affidavit supporting Cutler’s arrest, Joseph Fagone, an investigator with the Department of Corrections, quotes a prison employee, Sgt. John Howlett, who said he witnessed the assault.
Howlett says in the affidavit that Cutler handcuffed Williams and told him to sit. When Williams said he would prefer to stand, Cutler knocked his legs out from under him. Cutler then raised his voice and said, “You’ll do what I tell you when I tell you,” the affidavit says.
Howlett told the investigator, “I couldn’t believe it.”
Talbot Ross said she plans to meet with Ponte next week to discuss a trend of guards at the prison mistreating black inmates.
Lawrence Tardiff, a former guard who has filed a whistleblower complaint, said he knows of at least eight inmates who were assaulted by Cutler in the last two years. He said reports were made to the warden and the commissioner but nothing was done.
According to Tardiff:
• One inmate was handcuffed so tightly that the handcuffs left marks on his wrists for days.
• Cutler used Mace on inmates in two separate incidents.
• In two instances, Cutler improperly touched inmates during pat-down searches.
• And in two instances, Cutler raked an inmate’s face across a chain link fence.
The Press Herald requested reports of staff members assaulting inmates. Jody Breton, a deputy corrections commissioner, initially said she did not have that information, then said she would have to check with her human resources department. Breton did not provide any reports by Friday evening.
About two years ago, Warden Barnhart oversaw a change in the way the prison staff deals with violent or disruptive inmates.
Captains had been authorized to decide when to send an inmate to the prison’s segregation unit, but now the unit manager and the housing manager where the inmate is stationed must sign off first.
The segregation unit, which can hold 139 inmates, was filled to capacity less than two years ago. It now houses 35 to 50 inmates on any given day.
Ponte and Barnhart said last year that guards didn’t like the policy shift.
Bouffard said such a shift has worked elsewhere, and will work at Maine State Prison if the staff embraces it.
“Most of these people are going to be released at some point,” he said. “How we treat them in here directly affects how they will act out there, and we need the public to feel safe about that.”
Ponte said the changes come down to a “return on investment.”
“Can we improve the chances of an inmate becoming a responsible citizen in our state?” he wrote in his email. “In order to do that we have to measure outcomes and make adjustments when we do not see the results we had hoped for.”
The Rev. Stan Moody, a former prison chaplain who still does outreach with inmates, said he has been frustrated about the atmosphere at the prison since before Ponte took over as commissioner. He said many of the problems stem from a “good old boys network” of guards.
Moody said Cutler’s conduct was exposed because of the assault charge but it was not an isolated incident.
Judy Garvey with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said Ponte has good intentions and her group is generally supportive of reform efforts.
“The commissioner is trying to clean house, but he cannot micromanage each prison,” Garvey said. “We’ve been hoping that change would happen, because there has been a lot going on at that prison in terms of drug use, inappropriate sexual contact and other things that don’t make it into the news.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: