In the latest issue of the Portland Phoenix, Lance Tapley interviews Maine’s new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte. Before Ponte’s appointment, a grassroots movement in Maine raised public awareness around use and abuse of solitary confinement in Maine State Prison’s Special Management Unit (SMU), and led to an attempt to pass legislation limiting solitary. Since he was installed last winter, Ponte has instituted reforms in the SMU, reducing it’s average population by about two-thirds. A few excerpts follow; the interview can be read in full on the Portland Phoenix’s site.
YOU’VE MADE BIG CHANGES — ESPECIALLY IN THE SPECIAL MANAGEMENT UNIT AND THE MAINE STATE PRISON AS A WHOLE. IS THIS SOMETHING THAT YOU WANTED TO DO BEFORE YOU CAME TO MAINE? No. It was waiting for me when I arrived. There had been threats of lawsuits by the ACLU. A substantial committee had been put together that had worked for a good amount of time to develop what the concerns were. So I put a group together — led by Rod Bouffard from the Long Creek youth facility — to make the changes. And you’re right, there have been substantial changes. It is a big deal. It’s a lot for a staff to adjust to. It’s a whole different way of doing business.
I get asked the question: Do you get a lot of staff resistance? Well, we had trained staff for many, many years to do business a certain way, and now we’re telling them here’s another way of doing business. It took a good deal of leadership by Warden [Patricia] Barnhart and Charlie Charlton, the SMU unit manager, to convince staff there is another way, and try this, and it’s worked.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S WORKED?We have 60 beds that have been closed for three or four months. We’re utilizing about 40-something beds on any given day. So inmates that were typically locked up in segregation are now being managed in general population. Segregation tends not to fix the problem that the inmate needs to address.