AUGUSTA — Lawmakers decided Tuesday to postpone until the next legislative session their inquiry of Department of Corrections officials about an investigation into a culture of veteran guards hazing rookie guards at the Maine State Prison.
Joseph Fitzpatrick, the acting corrections commissioner, appeared before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to answer a variety of questions about changes and concerns within his department, but only one lawmaker touched briefly on the subject of the hazing investigation before the committee’s Senate chairman ended the hearing.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who co-chairs the committee, had called for an inquiry in August after details began to emerge about a widespread investigation being conducted internally at the prison in Warren and by the Maine Bureau of Human Resources into one or more hazing incidents there in May or later.
Lawmakers questioned Fitzpatrick about three recent inmate deaths inside the state’s correctional facilities and about the progress of a new mental health unit inside the state prison that opened in February, but asked nothing about what the Department of Corrections has done to curb guard hazing or its relation to the department’s 80 percent turnover rate among rookie guards.
“My hands were tied,” Gerzofsky said after he adjourned the meeting. Gerzofsky said he had a discussion with Attorney General Janet T. Mills before Tuesday’s hearing and learned that because the hazing investigation is still going on, Fitzpatrick and other Department of Corrections officials are restricted by state personnel laws from talking about it.
“That’s going to be a major conversation when we come back,” Gerzofsky said, referring to the next legislative session. Tuesday’s hearing was the committee’s last meeting until December.
Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, asked Fitzpatrick about prison hazing in the final question in the 45-minute hearing, moments before Gerzofsky adjourned the meeting.
“I’ll give you a public chance to reassure us. Have there been any changes or measures taken in regard to the hazing incident at the prison? I know you can’t comment publicly on the details, but reassure us,” Marks said.
Marks acknowledged after his question that Fitzpatrick could not comment publicly about details of the investigation.
“I will reassure you that I take that kind of situation extremely seriously and that my approach to something like that is … I don’t allow that to exist to the degree that I can go after it culturally,” Fitzpatrick said. “My belief system as a commissioner and the current head of the department is we need to instill a positive culture at every facility, and if there is a negative culture we are going to go after it and go after it aggressively. That may make some people unhappy, but we are going to be unwavering in that.”