AUGUSTA – From James Skoglund’s classic New England farmhouse on the banks of the St. George River, he can see the glow in the sky from the Maine Correctional Institution, better known as the Supermax, in Warren. Both because of the light from the “Max” and his knowledge of the way inmates are treated there, according to the St. George legislator, he can’t get the place off his mind.
On Friday, Skoglund sponsored a bill, LD 1330, to form a study commission composed of Amnesty International and other groups to investigate the operation of the maximum-security facility, a place where inmates are locked in their cells 23 hours a day, seven days a week.
The retired schoolteacher told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, “It is a terrible, terrible place. It bothers me to think that so many people live in such misery within 10 miles of my home, where I live in comfort and security. I can’t say that I am not responsible for it. I can’t say I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t plead ignorance. It is my belief that there are people in the Supermax that need not be there. I want to make sure that we as a Legislature find out how long a person needs to be in there to learn his lesson. I would guess not more than one or two days,” Skoglund said.
“We are responsible. I am responsible as a citizen. If we are doing ridiculous, absurd, inhumane things, it is my responsibility. I can’t say I have no part in it, because I do. You have a responsibility, too,” he told the committee. Skoglund, a fierce critic of the new prison under construction in Warren, said the treatment of inmates at the Supermax “will come back to haunt us.”
One inmate was transferred from another prison facility to the maximum security Maine Correctional Institution for reporting the manufacturing of a “shiv” or homemade knife, and another was assigned there for smuggling tobacco, the legislator said. “Does that make any sense whatever?” Skoglund asked.
The bill is not an attack on the prison administration, which he respects, the legislator said. “I want to make the Legislature aware of their responsibility in creating mandatory sentences and eliminate parole. This is the system that the Legislature has put together, not the administration,” he said. The Legislature has put tens of millions of dollars into bricks and mortar instead of education, counseling and mitigation projects, he said. With no statistical increase in crime, the Legislature has created a system that sends more people to prison for longer sentences, he said.
State prison Warden Jeff Merrill said the debate was irrelevant since the Supermax would be closed by the time the committee could be formed. The 100-bed Supermax unit will be fully integrated into the new 1,000-bed prison, scheduled to open at the end of the year, and “the [Maine Correctional Institution] will cease to exist as we know it,” the warden said.
Skoglund said plans for the new prison should be reviewed by the study commission to determine what, if any, portions of the Maine Correctional Institution program will remain.
The warden defended Supermax and the program, which successfully lowered tension and pressure at other facilities, just by the threat of a transfer to the maximum-security facility.
Every transfer to Supermax was done under strict protocol with the approval of both the warden and commissioner, Merrill told the committee. The only inmates in the Maine Correctional Institution for tobacco violations were involved in large-scale smuggling and racketeering, he said. Smoking has been banned at the prison since July 2000, a change which has made tobacco so valuable that individual cigarettes now sell for $3.50.
Most inmates were transferred to the Supermax unit when they were out of control, attacked guards, attempted escape or committed an illegal act. “They earned their way there,” the warden said.
Among the many programs in the new prison will be expanded psychiatric services, the warden said.
The prison system needs to pay much more attention to the mentally ill, according to the bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Marilyn E. Canavan, D-Waterville. Carol Carothers of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said mental illness is the root cause of most crimes, and she opposed the “draconian measures” at the Maine Correctional Institution that “might have crossed into the realm of torture.”
House Speaker Michael Saxl said the study commission proposal was in line with the Legislature’s oversight responsibility. After spending $140 million in prisons during the past decade, the Legislature “ought to take a deep breath and see if the system is working well,” the Portland Democrat said.
Committee members questioned the proposed membership of the study commission, which would include representatives from the Civil Liberties Union, Council of Churches, Amnesty International, and the National Association for the Mentally Ill. Committee Senate Chairman Michael McAlevey, R-Waterboro, said those groups appear before the committee to offer “criticism, but no solutions.”
A work session on the Skoglund bill was set for Friday, March 30.