April 08, 2020

Close call at prison a warning

The administrators within the Department of Corrections realized that they truly dodged a bullet when they circumvented an alleged plot to take hostages in a prison visiting room this week.

Working on a tip, officials successfully thwarted an alleged attempt by a woman, armed with a loaded .40-caliber Beretta handgun, to help her husband escape from the Maine State Prison in Warren.

I’ve written about Maine jails and prisons and their prisoners and administrators for a decade or more, and this week’s events highlight what is a continuous challenge for prison administrators, legislators, judges and taxpayers.

We want our murderers, rapists, wife beaters and drug dealers to be put behind bars. That’s a given. But what we don’t want to do is spend many of our tax dollars on the resources it takes to do that.

Martin Magnusson, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and Denise Lord, an associate commissioner, know that all too well.

They spend countless hours trying to convince the representatives of a heavily tax-burdened state that they need to put a few more resources into programs and staffing for our most heinous offenders.

That’s a tough pill for most of us to swallow. Inmates get three square meals and at least an hour of recreation each day. That’s more than a lot of harried, law-abiding citizens get.

On Tuesday, Susan Watland, a 47-year-old from Jackson, allegedly got within 250 feet of the prison’s front door with a loaded gun. Prison officials say she intended to smuggle it to her husband, who is serving 25 years for killing his neighbor. They say he planned to take hostages during the prison’s visiting hours. That put not only prisoners, but guards and civilians, at risk.

These, by the way, are guards who each day deal with the risk of bodily injury or perhaps just a fistful of feces being thrown their way for about the same pay and benefits of a tele-marketer.

Newspaper stories have all suggested the Watland may never have made it through the two metal detectors at the prison.

True enough.

But what if she started shooting before she got there. Her gun allegedly was cocked and ready to go.

What if she had killed a young man or woman with a couple of kids at home. Just whom would we have blamed?

Marty Magnusson has worked within the state’s prison system for more than 30 years. He worked his way up from guard to commissioner. Denise Lord is a corrections whiz who came from out of state and has willingly stayed the course through a decade of budgetary struggles.

Magnusson said in a newspaper article this week that part of the problem was that there was an increasing number of prisoners serving life sentences. They feel hopeless, he said, and have little to lose. That makes life riskier inside the walls of the prison. That doesn’t mean he’s advocating for lighter sentences, but politicians and taxpayers and judges have to be prepared for the cost that their imprisonment brings.

Magnusson knows what his responsibility is to our state. We simply don’t want to provide him the resources to do it.

This time the system worked, but what happened Tuesday should serve as a warning, and taxpayers and legislators need to know that it’s not just prisoners at risk in our prisons.

Next time it might be a state employee or a child visiting his dad who has to dodge a bullet.

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