AUGUSTA — Every speaker at a public hearing Monday expressed opposition to proposed discipline rules by the Maine Department of Corrections that as written would limit inmates’ ability to communicate with the outside world.
Nineteen people spoke at the two-hour hearing at the department’s central office in Augusta, including former inmates, family members of inmates, mental health representatives, a former prison guard, a legislator, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and a member of the NAACP of Maine, as well as other activists.
No one from the corrections department spoke at the hearing, and the department has said it will not provide further explanation of the proposal until the public comment period ends.
The proposed rules mostly seek to amend existing policy for adult and juvenile inmates related to commonly prohibited acts such as destruction of property, fighting, displaying gang symbols and possessing contraband.
But they also include policies that have either already been rejected by courts or haven’t been tried in other states, such as bans on interacting with the news media, soliciting or communicating with a pen pal, passing or receiving written communication without authorization and social networking.
Most speakers said that limiting inmates’ contact with people outside of prison would be counter-productive to their rehabilitation.
Amber Jeskey, a former corrections officer, said that cutting off contact between inmates and people in the outside community causes discipline problems in prison.
“For those who don’t have anyone on the outside, they don’t think anything about acting out. What’s more time if you have nowhere to go?” Jeskey said. “Having strong ties to the community is a proven way to reduce recidivism.”
Peter Lehman of Thomaston, a former inmate who is now a reform activist, said many of the proposed rules are so vague they could be interpreted in different ways, such as bans on disturbances, harassment or discourteous behavior. A pen pal could be interpreted as anyone who corresponds with an inmate, he said.
“What is disturbing? What does harassing, courtesy or pen pal mean? And as long as no one knows what it means, the discipline officer gets to decide,” he said.
Lehman said that if inmates feel they can’t communicate with people outside of prison, their reaction will be anger and alienation.
“This is going to create discipline problems. This is going to create orderly problems at the prison,” Lehman said. Mary Lucia, policy development coordinator for the Department of Corrections, told speakers at the outset of the hearing that the DOC would consider all remarks made during the hearing before developing a final draft of the proposed rules to submit to the Attorney General’s Office for review.
“It is not the purpose of this meeting today to respond to comments,” said Lucia, who added that the testimony was recorded.
Neither Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick nor any of his associate commissioners attended the public hearing. Assistant Attorney General Diane Sleek, who represents the department in legal matters, also did not attend.
People can submit further comment on the proposed changes in writing to the department until Nov. 6.
State Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, said he found the proposed rules “unnecessary and counterproductive.”
“How does isolating prisoners from the outside world advance the goal of rehabilitation?” he asked.
David Smith, a retired teacher from Belfast who serves on the Restorative Justice Project of the MidCoast, said he’s concerned that members of his organization would no longer be able to work as effectively with inmates under the proposed rules.
“I’m concerned that our written communication would fall under the restricted communication of ‘communicating with a pen pal,’ ” Smith said. “The loss of such communication would be a terrible shame.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said many of the department’s proposals are unconstitutional. Its draft rules that would prohibit “written communication,” “social networking” and “soliciting or communicating with a pen pal” all violate the First Amendment, he said.
“Even if these proposals had solid public policy justifications, that would not make them legal. Each of these proposals have been reviewed by the courts in other jurisdictions and found to be unconstitutional,” Heiden said. “The ACLU of Maine expects that the department, or the attorney general, will not allow a rule to go into effect that would violate the constitutional rights of prisoners.”
Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, read aloud letters from inmates who all said they didn’t understand the meaning of the proposed rules as they are written.
“Who decides what is courteous behavior and what isn’t,” one inmate wrote. Another inmate asked if his grandmother’s friend was considered a pen pal or not.
Talbot Ross called on Fitzpatrick to reconvene a rules-making group with members from the community as his predecessor, Commissioner Joseph Ponte, had done.
Jenna Maynard, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said the proposals could also prevent inmates from writing to her organization with questions related to their mental health treatment.
“Our concern is that we would fall under the pen pal category,” Maynard said.
The department has not set a timeline for when it expects to finalize its rulemaking process.