Corrections is the part of state government that most people would like to forget. Stories showing that prisons are dangerous places seem fair to some who think that’s how justice is delivered.
That attitude, however, overlooks that we send staff into our prisons every day and we are all responsible for their safety. We are also responsible for the safety of prisoners. Violence, even if perpetrated by other inmates, is cruel and unusual punishment.
And nearly every inmate gets released one day and brings what he’s learned in prison back to our communities.
There has been a lot of troubling news coming from the Maine State Prison in Warren.
Last month, the warden was fired for failing to improve the prison’s management. Last week, a captain was arrested for allegedly assaulting an inmate. A former deputy warden is suing the state, saying he was fired for speaking up about what he claims is understaffing at the prison, which he said led to an inmate’s death.
From the outside, this looks like a deteriorating situation, but Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has taken a major step to stop the slide. By making Rodney Bouffard the prison’s new warden, Ponte has shown he wants to take the institution in a new direction.
No one in Maine has more credibility than Bouffard when it comes to fixing broken institutions.
He was the last director of the Pineland Center, promoted through the ranks of special education teachers when the state home for people with mental disabilities was in legal trouble, in part for the overuse of restraints.
He then became director of the Augusta Mental Health Institute, despite having no experience in the mental health field. He oversaw the orderly shutdown of that institution, coming in when it was in total disarray.
In 2001, Bouffard was sent to run the Long Creek Youth Development Center, which was battling charges of abusive use of isolation and restraints. The state was the focus of an Amnesty International human rights letter-writing campaign and was sued by a former inmate.
Bouffard turned the institution around, using what he had learned at Pineland and AMHI. It is now considered a model program nationally.
Two things are consistent in Bouffard’s career. One is that staff members are initially resistant to his ideas. The other is that they eventually see that his ideas are right.
No one in the state has this record of success implementing culture change in troubled institutions. Bouffard’s appointment to run the Maine State Prison is a clear sign that the Department of Corrections is not taking problems there lightly.