The Maine State Prison in Warren. (Courtesy
advertisementSmiley face

A two-month dispute over access to the Maine State Prison in Warren may climax when members of the Commission to Examine Reestablishing Parole arrive on Thursday (Oct. 27) for a meeting of the prison’s NAACP chapter, one of the state’s largest.

Up to now, the commission, after twice voting to authorize a visit, has been blocked by the Department of Corrections, which has declined to grant access.

The commission is trying to hear directly from inmates who would be eligible for hearings if lawmakers choose to reinstate parole, which Maine abolished in 1976. Its report to the Legislature is due Dec. 1.

It’s the latest turn in a saga that began with the commission’s first meeting on Sept. 8, when Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said he would have to check with Gov. Mills’ chief of staff, Jeremy Kennedy, before authorizing such a visit.

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship), whose bill, LD 842, authorized the commission, responded that legislative committees do not need permission from the Governor’s office to do their work.

Since then, lines of conflict have hardened. At the commission’s Oct. 7 meeting, Liberty said that a visit by legislators would be “disruptive,” and would require a lock-down during the visit, something commission members immediately described as disingenuous.

“This happens all the time. I regularly attend meetings at the prison involving 100 or 200 residents,” Evangelos said.

The commission’s House chair, Charlotte Warren, said, “I’m a social worker. I live by a code of ethics. And you don’t write and enact public policy for a particular group of people without input from the people affected by that policy.”

At the Oct. 14 meeting, Susan Gagnon, an associate commissioner representing Liberty, said a “tour” conducted by prison staff would be acceptable, but a “visit,” involving unfettered contact with inmates, would not be.

Earlier, Liberty said that inmates could provide written testimony to the commission, while Gagnon said case workers could email testimony.

Warren disputed that claim as well. “For eight years on the Criminal Justice Committee, I’ve been trying to get regular access. We thought during the pandemic we could do that on Zoom. We can’t,” she said.

Warren spoke at the Oct. 14 meeting about a woman at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham she’s helping to prepare a clemency application. “Her case worker has been told not to use email. We have to use snail mail, and you know how long that can take.”

Gagnon said she would “look into” the situation.

The commission was told earlier it would be logistically impossible to include women from the Windham prison at a meeting in Warren, but Evangelos said he couldn’t see why.

He pointed out that male and female inmates from both institutions met earlier this month to participate in a debate with students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a debate the judges voted unanimously was won by the prison team.

Warren said she expects several other members to join her and Evangelos at the prison this week. “We were invited to attend by the NAACP chapter. We will honor that invitation,” she said.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].

Smiley face