AUGUSTA – The warden of the Maine State Prison told lawmakers Monday that she has worked to improve morale at the prison but there’s more to do.

One year after a report cited instances of intimidation, harassment, discrimination and a strong sense of a “good old boy” network in the prison administration, Patricia Barnhart, who took over in December, discussed improvements in a report to the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee.

The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability released the report in June 2009 and asked state officials to talk Monday about the progress they have made.

Barnhart said she has made significant changes to try to improve the culture at the prison.

For example, she said, she has held a town hall-style meeting with the staff, she walks through the prison regularly to hear from officers and inmates, and she has an open-door policy to hear complaints.

She set up a work group to implement a wellness plan, and she’s working to make sure the people who work at the prison are high performers, she said.

“We are weeding out some bad apples,” she said. “They are seeing that there is accountability.”

She said she continues to work to speed up timelines for promotions and for disciplinary action.

Corrections Commissioner Marty Magnusson described a difficult summer and fall at the prison.

State cutbacks and a retirement incentive program reduced the ranks significantly, he said. At one point, 80 percent of the mental health case workers had left and there were 45 vacancies for correctional officers, he said.

“When we had a number of vacancies, we were absolutely wearing out the staff,” he said.

In March 2009, Warden Jeff Merrill was reassigned to another job with the state and Magnusson began looking for a new warden. Barnhart had most recently been an acting warden at a facility in Michigan.

She said Monday that prisoners’ morale is affected by corrections officers — and vice versa.

“(Prisoners) can be my biggest asset if they want to be,” she said. “This is where they live. If they are calmer, it makes the staff calmer.”

Magnusson said one major problem that continues to affect morale is mandatory 12-hour shifts, which save money by reducing overtime. He said that while the Department of Corrections has saved $1.7 million in overtime costs, some staff members don’t cope well with the extended hours.

The department will try to create some eight-hour positions to accommodate workers who have difficulty with the longer shifts, he said. Lawmakers said they’re happy to see progress and offered to sponsor legislation or take other steps if it would help.

“This prison belongs to the Legislature, too,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting.

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]