March 10, 2010

State prison warden shifted to new duties

DAVID HENCH

— By

Staff Writer

The Maine State Prison's warden is being reassigned to a post overseeing energy conservation for the Department of Corrections.

Jeff Merrill's move comes as the prison struggles with staff morale, and as police and prosecutors investigate the killing of an inmate.

Merrill has been with the Corrections Department for 28 years. For the past 14 years, he has been warden of the state's largest prison, a medium- and maximum-security facility in Warren with about 900 inmates.

The news release announcing Merrill's new job complimented him on his service and the importance of his new assignment.

''Warden Merrill has contributed significantly to improvements within the department over the years. This new assignment is vital to the future of the department,'' said Commissioner Martin Magnusson.

However, the change follows two reports that identified problems at the prison, including intimidation and retaliation against people who raise concerns; a perception by the staff and inmates that they are being harassed, and a distrust of and lack of respect for management.

''Assuring that effective avenues for reporting and resolution of concerns exist, and are truly supported by the culture, is critical to reducing the state's exposure to liabilities and risks inherent in the operation of a maximum security correctional facility,'' says the report by the state's Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, which recommended a series of changes.

The prison also is under scrutiny in the investigation of inmates' fatal attack on a sex offender in April. State police are working with the Attorney General's Office on a criminal investigation into the killing of Sheldon Weinstein, who died four days after he was assaulted. Officials have not said what medical attention he received from health workers under contract with the state.

A spokesman for the union that represents corrections officers and sergeants at the prison would not comment on the personnel investigations connected with the homicide, other than to say that there could be grievances in the near future.

''It's an unfortunate situation,'' said Zack Matthews. ''There are all kinds of events that don't end up in that kind of tragedy the robberies, intimidations, beatings that go unreported because there are not enough front-line staff in that prison.''

Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said there were no acute problems that prompted Merrill's change in duties, which, she said, Merrill and Magnusson had been discussing for some time. However, she acknowledged persistent challenges at the prison.

''There have been issues at the Maine State Prison over the past several years,'' she said. ''It's a very difficult facility, and it's also our most costly facility.''

A lack of funding has contributed to many of the problems at the prison, suggested a report by the Board of Visitors, a civilian panel appointed by the governor to oversee correctional facilities. Budget cuts have interfered with staffing goals and caused cutbacks in programming, which makes managing inmates more challenging.

Merrill's leadership at the prison wasn't addressed during a recent meeting of the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee when the two reports were reviewed, said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the committee's House chair.

The Board of Visitors ''had indicated to us that all of their meetings and conversations with Warden Merrill have been professional and he was always very open to what their concerns were and always responded to them,'' she said.

The prison and its staff have made significant adjustments since the medium-security unit opened in 2002, with a style of management that involves more contact between officers and inmates.

Recently, corrections officers have been required to work 12-hour shifts as a way to reduce overtime costs.

Matthews said the union has butted heads with Merrill at times, but that is to be expected.

''Historically, there have been issues in terms of understaffing and relatively low pay for corrections officers, given what they have to do,'' said Matthews.

Sometimes a single officer works in a unit in close proximity to 70 or more inmates because the prison is not adequately staffed, he said.

Magnusson, a former warden at the prison, will take over its day-to-day operation while a new warden is sought. Observers say Magnusson was a highly respected warden who earned praise from the staff, prisoners and several governors.

Merrill will stay at the prison to help the transition to a new warden and in the prison's work to be re-accredited by the American Correctional Association. Once that is complete, probably in October, he will move to the Charleston Correctional Facility to lead a program to make state corrections facilities more energy-efficient.

''I am looking forward to this new responsibility,'' Merrill said in the news release announcing his new job. ''It gives me an opportunity to contribute to an area of significant importance to the entire department and to the state.''

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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