Lisa Goodine of Portland supports herself on Social Security and a part-time job as a cashier. She also sends what money she can to her son, Shawn Goodine, an inmate at Maine State Prison in Warren, so he can buy coffee, snacks and hygiene products.
So Goodine was shocked to find out that some of the money she sends her son is still being deducted to pay a fine for a 10-year-old disciplinary infraction, when he was serving a previous sentence at Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
“I’m his only mother, I’m the only one that will help him. I don’t like his choices, but he’s my kid,” she said. “I know he’s being punished – he deserves to be – but he needs money, too, in jail.”
Goodine realized during a phone call with her son in September that he was not getting the full amount she would send him. Shawn requested his account statements and saw that his mother sent him $50 five times since June, and each time $12.50 was taken out for a monetary sanction generated March 27, 2009.
Shawn Goodine wrote to the prison business office Sept. 12 asking if this was a mistake and if anything could be done. The letter was returned with a handwritten note that said “You are still responsible to pay off monetary sanctions.”
“This is making me mad – I’m sending money that my kid isn’t getting and I don’t know where it’s going,” Goodine said. “Financially I’m strapped. Sometimes I can’t even pay my gas bill.”
Goodine’s experience isn’t an isolated example.
An investigation by the Portland Phoenix found that Maine State Prison fined inmates at least $203,000 for disciplinary infractions between December 2013, the earliest date for which data is available through the Correctional Information System database, and December 2018. More than $178,000 of that was imposed in 2014 and 2015. (Restitution sanctions for such expenses as property damage or medical expenses are not included in those totals.)
Although the prison has reduced its use of fines, it is still collecting on the old ones. At the beginning of 2019, there was still more than $80,000 outstanding of just the fines imposed since 2013. In 2019, about $1,000 in fines have been imposed, while nearly $8,000 in fines have been collected. Inmates question whether the amounts imposed fell outside the purpose defined in Maine statute as defraying the cost of holding disciplinary hearings.
The Phoenix received 20 letters from inmates in Warren saying they had fines totaling between $250 and $2,000, and most said the fines were paid or are still being paid by their families or friends.
“Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t been a saint,” wrote inmate David Michaud of Lee, who included documentation of at least $425 in fines, “but my family and friends don’t deserve to be punished also.”
Gordon Perry of Warren sent documentation of $1,000 in fines.
“My loved ones pay my fines,” he wrote. “I’m still paying them off and I’ve had them for many many years. My family is or was not well off and it was a struggle to (send) $20 for B-days and X-mas.”
More than 12,000 sanctions
The Maine statute governing prison discipline authorizes correctional facilities to collect fines as sanctions for disciplinary violations to defray the cost of hearings, and stipulates that 25 percent of any new money an inmate receives from any source shall be withdrawn to pay them.
The majority of Maine State Prison inmates do not have paying jobs, so all of their fines would be deducted from money sent by family or friends. According to the prison’s work plan, obtained through a Freedom of Access request, there are only 426 paid prisoner jobs, while the population as of Dec. 5 was 996.
The Department of Corrections recently changed its policy to eliminate fines except for four serious offenses. But previously, fines ranged from $25 to $100 depending on the class of the violation, and could be levied for any violation, such as not wearing an ID or getting a tattoo, or planning to carry out any listed violation.
Maine correctional facilities do not report the amount they impose in fines to the Department of Corrections. Freedom of Access requests in 2016 and 2018 for this information were denied as not existing in a report.
But after an inmate sent one page of an “active sanctions report” generated through the Correctional Information System database, a request for that report by name produced spreadsheets of more than 12,000 sanctions — including “disciplinary restriction,” or cell confinement, loss of good time, extra work, fines and restitution — imposed from December 2013-November 2019.
The dataset offers a rare glimpse into the workings of the prison’s internal court. But even that source is incomplete and becomes more so over time; it contains information only on inmates still incarcerated at the prison at the time the report is generated. (The full dataset obtained by the Phoenix is available at bit.ly/PortlandPhoenix-prisonsanctions.)
As prisoners were racking up debt from monetary sanctions, they petitioned the administration in 2016 to stop imposing fines, according to a spokesman for the prison branch of the NAACP, which organized the petition. The administration agreed, the spokesman said, but with the stipulation that all outstanding fines would still have to be paid.
Around the same time, Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which advocates for prison reform, had a conversation with then-Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick about the burden fines were putting on inmates and their families, and told him about a situation in which 25 men were fined $75 each for having coffee cups on their windowsills during cell inspections.
He said Fitzpatrick agreed that was “outrageous” and made a verbal agreement to end fines.
The data show fines ending in 2017 and returning to a limited extent in 2018. Maine State Prison officials said that beginning in 2018, fines were given out for only one offense: assault on a guard.
Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell said the reduction in the use of fines department-wide was not the result of a prisoner petition, but was a decision the commissioner made independently because there was no evidence that fines changed behavior.
Troy Ross, deputy warden at Maine State Prison, said that the change reflected a new philosophy.
“Nationally they were not recommending fines as much as they were in years past; there was some data out there that fines don’t work,” he said. “We disagree with that, but our administration as a team decided that we’re not going to take fines except for very serious offenses.”
This year the department revised its policy to reflect the change in practice, except that the offenses that carry a fine were expanded to four. In revisions finalized Oct. 8, the $25-$100 fines for each class of offense were replaced with a $5 surcharge for every guilty finding, while assault of staff, volunteers or interns; trafficking; gang affiliation and possession of a deadly weapon all carry a $100 fine.
At a hearing on the proposed changes at the Maine DOC offices in April, some speakers raised concerns that fines serve no rehabilitative goals and that the policy does not take into account the inmate’s ability to pay. The inclusion of gang affiliation among the offenses with a $100 fine concerned some attendees, who said that with its vague definition, it is likely to disproportionately impact minorities.
Maine is an outlier
A comparison of the disciplinary policies of all 50 states by the Phoenix found that Maine’s $100 fine is the third highest in the country among state correctional facilities. Thirty-seven states do not impose any type of punitive fines or surcharges on inmates. Fines are higher only in Utah ($300) and Oregon ($200), but because Maine compounded fines for incidents resulting in multiple charges, while Utah and Oregon do not, Maine’s fines have risen to the highest in the country on occasion.
An analysis of the dataset reveals that Maine State Prison imposed fines greater than $100 more than 270 times from 2014 through 2018, with $375 as the highest fine imposed.
Jeremy Sharp, director of the Utah Division of Prison Operations, said in an email that an inmate’s ability to pay is considered before a fine is imposed.
“We normally only utilize the sanction we feel will change the behavior,” he said. “If the inmate doesn’t have any money, a fine is not the best tool to use to get the desired result.”
Melissa Nofziger, Oregon Department of Corrections assistant inspector general, said fines are “rarely effective.”
In a phone interview, Hope Goode of New York she is paying off fines for her fiance, Maine State Prison inmate LaQuinn Evans. She questioned where the money is going.
“I don’t think they should be paying a fine on top of being penalized,” Goode said. “My rent is $1,500 a month, and then there’s medicine and bills. On top of taking care of him, feeding my child, to have to give that money to the state? What is the state using it on?”
In an interview at the prison in September, neither Ross nor Disciplinary Hearing Officer Harold Abbott said they know how the money collected in fines is used.
“I mean I’ve asked the question,” Abbott said. “I don’t know if it goes to the General Fund, I don’t know if it goes into the Inmate Benefit Fund. I have no idea where that money goes.”
Thornell, the deputy corrections commissioner, said it was used for administrative costs associated with holding disciplinary hearings, and Commissioner Randall Liberty said it was deposited to the state’s General Fund.
Freedom of Access requests to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services for the amounts the prison deposited to the General Fund were referred back to the DOC, which responded only with a report of the amounts it collected in fines each year.
Jane Tower, secretary specialist for the DOC in charge of FOA requests, explained the seemingly conflicting answers.
“The money collected does in fact get deposited into the General Fund, but all of it is sent to that fund as a partial offset for the bill sent to the Prison for printing and photocopying expenses,” she wrote in an email. “Printing and photocopying expenses are a significant part of the costs of holding disciplinary hearings, as all of the paperwork involved in a hearing has to be printed out and/or photocopied and provided to the prisoner. … Therefore, while the Commissioner was correct, it is also correct that the money is used to defray costs in compliance with the statute.
“While these costs are not tracked specifically,” Tower continued, “I am told that there is no doubt that more is spent on these expenses for disciplinary hearings than is collected from monetary sanctions.”
But according to Maine Open Checkbook, an online database of state spending administered by the Office of the State Controller, the amount Maine State Prison paid the state for printing and photocopying was less than it collected in fines from 2013-2017.
By the end of 2017, the fines collected since 2013 were ahead of the printing bill by more than $22,000. The prison paused collecting fines in 2018, and the printing bill mostly caught up. In total, the prison paid the state $137,180 from 2013-2018 – it is unclear what portion of that was for printing and copying related to disciplinary hearings – and collected $137,740 in fines over that time, according to the document the DOC provided as its FOA response. The prison resumed collecting fines in 2019 and has collected $7,780 this year as of Dec. 12.
Abbott said there is a lot of printing and copying involved in running disciplinary hearings.
“For each case I have to print off the findings for the inmates,” he said. “Then I have to print out another copy – it seems redundant – a signed copy, and all that paperwork gets scanned into the particular case.”
He said he keeps all the hard copies in case inmates file an appeal in state court, and saves 2 1/2 boxes per year.
Looking at the amounts imposed, the difference is greater. From 2014-2018 the prison imposed $199,000 in fines, compared to about $117,500 it paid the state for printing and photocopying over that time period.
Hopes for reimbursement
Several of the inmates who sent letters asked for help getting their fines suspended or reimbursed.
Inmate Norman Thompson of Mexico, ME, said fines were taken out of money his mother sent in when she was dying of lung cancer.
“She was sending me $25-$30 and they were taking 25% out of that?” Thompson wrote. “Are you kidding? I’d like to get that money back. I feel that it is a scam and it’s just not right.”
Geoffrey Reese of Texas, an inmate who has been researching the prison’s use of fines for many years, said he believes that if the money collected is being deposited to the General Fund, and surpasses the cost of conducting hearings, the practice is unlawful. He said he hopes to sue the department if he can obtain proof of the deposits.
“So this money that is being in my opinion unjustifiably, arbitrarily and punitively deducted and taken from prisoners, and the burden and debt that is being imposed as a result on the family members, is being used to enrich the state?” Reese said. “That’s called in law ‘illegal enrichment’ if it is unjustifiable, and, according to my knowledge, the statutory language doesn’t justify it.”