The warden of the Maine State Prison, Patricia Barnhart, was fired Thursday morning, according to union officials. State officials refused to confirm the firing or comment on the reason.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte went to Barnhart’s office Thursday morning and terminated her, a union official said. Barnhart has run the state’s largest prison since 2009.

“He walked into her office and fired her cold on the spot, right there,” said Jim Mackie, staff representative for AFCME Council 93, which represents the more than 600 state corrections officers.

The situation was described to Mackie by staff members who were at the prison at the time. “My understanding is she was absolutely devastated,” he said. “She never saw it coming.”

The commissioner notified legislative leaders on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee last week that he was planning a change in leadership, although he did not explain his reasoning, said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, a co-chair of the committee.

“He did not go into specifics, given that the process was under way,” Dion said.

A spokeswoman for Ponte said he would not comment on the personnel matter.

A call to the Maine State Prison seeking comment from Barnhart was not returned.

Calls to Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman were not returned Thursday, and calls to the main number of the Bureau of Human Resources went directly to an employee’s voicemail.

As a state employee, Barnhart is able to appeal her termination under the state’s civil service rules. Barnhart earned $100,500 in salary in 2011.

Barnhart, 45, drew criticism in 2011 when she bought five acres and three houses from the state for far below their assessed value.

The property was never marketed to the public, and the sale was later declared void by the state attorney general because it violated a law that prohibits state employees from having a financial interest in state contracts.

The property on Ship Street Circle in Thomaston was sold to Barnhart for $175,000, well below its assessed tax value of $512,263. After an uproar, the state bought the property back, paying $175,000 for it and $2,000 to reimburse Barnhart for closing costs.

Sen. Gary Plummer, co-chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said he did not believe that episode resulted in any lingering criticism of Barnhart.

“I think she was pretty much cleared of any wrongdoing in that,” Plummer said.

He would not comment specifically on Barnhart’s current situation.

“I would have been briefed, but because it’s a personnel matter, I can’t discuss what information was given to me,” he said.

While the committee has not met since last April, Plummer said he recalls no discussions about performance problems at the Maine State Prison.

Recently, the Maine State Prison and the Bolduc Correctional Facility, which Barnhart also oversees, received a perfect accreditation score from the American Correctional Association.

“If she’s screwing up, maybe we need some more people in corrections like her,” Mackie said. “It’s very unfortunate because she had the respect of people up there.”

Mackie said Barnhart was willing to work with the union to settle conflicts and he and she spent all day Wednesday with an arbitrator settling grievances.

Mackie said he was notified that Ponte was touring the facility Thursday.

“They were all being told he was going to drop a bomb,” he said. “All the captains were told there would be big changes and when they’re told to do something, they better do it.”

The Maine State Prison has a capacity of 916 inmates and a staff of 410, according to the department’s website.

Sen. Anne Haskell, who previously served on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said Thursday that the commissioner does not routinely discuss the performance of subordinates with legislators but she was aware of no specific problems.

“I’ve enjoyed working with Warden Barnhart but wasn’t in a position to assess all the elements of her performance,” Haskell said. “She’s been very straightforward with me when I was on the committee. I worked with her on the hospice program and was pleased we were able to do that,” she said, referring to a program at the prison in which inmates provide hospice care to other inmates who are dying.

Ponte on Wednesday announced he was closing the Central Maine Pre-Release Center in Hallowell. The program, which currently has 58 inmates and 21 budgeted staff positions, is being relocated to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

Ponte has described plans to modernize and expand the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, but the cost and extent of the upgrades have yet to be finalized or approved, Plummer said. However, he said preliminary plans call for a facility with a capacity of more than 1,000 prisoners.

Barnhart came to Maine after a 20-year career in Michigan, starting as a corrections officer and ending as acting warden at a 1,216-bed prison for adult males and young offenders. She is the first woman to become warden at the Maine State Prison.

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