February 23, 2013

Trouble behind Maine's prison bars

A fired warden. A prison captain charged with assault. And some say the Maine State Prison's problems are much larger.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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The arrest this week of a prison captain and last month's dismissal of the prison warden are indicative of larger problems, say people who are familiar with the workings of the Maine State Prison in Warren, ME.


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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.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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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.

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Additional Photos

Patricia  Barnhart, Maine State Prison
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Patricia Barnhart, who was fired a prison warden last month.



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