March 26, 2013

Lawmakers reject proposal to limit prisoners' rights

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The Legislature's Judiciary Committee unanimously opposed a bill Tuesday that would bar prisoners from seeking protection-from-harassment orders against corrections officers.

The bill, supported by the Department of Corrections, was presented to the committee just days after a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram article describing the mistreatment of an inmate by a corrections officer last June.

At a public hearing last week, opponents of the bill cited the story and a video of the incident on the newspaper's web site in saying that prisoners needed the ability to seek protection from vindictive officers.

The department had sought the bill because transferring inmates to court for hearings on the protection-from-harassment orders uses prison resources, as does defending against them legally, and none of the filings have been successful. The agency also worried that the pace of such complaints might grow beyond the dozen that have occurred over the past 10 years.

In one case, a man serving a life sentence sought an order barring a particular corrections officer from being within 100 feet of him without a supervisor.

In voting unanimously that the proposed ban ought not to pass, legislators said Tuesday that being an inmate does not mean sacrificing one's rights.

"Prisoners are still entitled to certain rights. You don't want to deny justice to anyone," said Rep. Jarrod Crockett, a Bethel Republican who asked that the judiciary explore ways to handle a protection hearing via video conference rather than in a courtroom to save resources.

Rep. Lisa Renee Villa, D-Harrison, later said the Press Herald's report was a reason she voted against the bill.

"Clearly what happened with that incident with that inmate shows why you have to have some protections," she said.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is reviewing the department's budget proposal Wednesday and will seek a briefing on the incident, said the chairman, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.

The problem of inmates abusing the protection-from-harassment system does not appear to be serious, Villa said.

"There wasn't an excessive amount of filings. There was no abuse of the system," she said.

Legislators also learned that a recent change in the protection-from-harassment law requires someone in law enforcement to issue an order telling the harassing party to stop before a court order can be sought.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Jody Breton said that the bill suffered from bad timing, coming up as it did shortly after the Press Herald's story as well as coverage of an incident at the Maine State Prison in which a captain was charged with assault and fired.

Breton also said staffers were unaware of the new step in the process that requires law enforcement to weigh in on a protection-from-harassment complaint before it is filed, a step which may lessen the need for the bill.

Staff Writer David Hench can be reached at: 791-6327


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