WARREN, Maine — Kennebec County Sheriff Randy Liberty will assume new duties this month as warden of the Maine State Prison, a facility that has faced staff recruiting and retentions problems over the years.
The sheriff will turn in his badge on Sept. 28 to begin what he says will be an exciting challenge overseeing the state's largest incarceration center.
Republicans and Democrats alike praised the hiring of Liberty, who they expect will maintain high management standards at the Warren facility.
As Kennebec County sheriff for the last 7 years, Randy Liberty has confronted the exploding numbers of prisoners dealing mental illness, drug addiction, prison overcrowding, staff retention and budget constraints. His experience will serve him well in his new job as warden of a prison that faces the same problems, but on a much larger scale.
"Often times I have seen that these are the same individuals that at the county we receive them first, and in Kennebec County alone we receive 3,200 inmates annually who are arrested and brought into the facility," Liberty says.
The Maine State Prison in Warren holds just over 900 prisoners who are overseen by a professional staff of a little more than 400, according to the prison's website.
While the average stay at the prison is considerably longer than the county jail, Liberty says all inmates share common problems.
"Often it's an acute environment or an acute situation where they're coming off opiates or they have chronic persistent mental illness, and so the mental illness and substance abuse education programming is all very similar," Liberty says. "One thing that is an advantage to the prison is that it's a stable population."
Staff retention and development problems at the prison have made headlines over the last 18 months.
A year ago, corrections officer Cory Peaslee of Augusta told the Portland Press Herald that he was the victim of a hazing incident in which 15 officers watched as a sergeant threatened him with pepper spray if he refused to let the other guards handcuff him to a door.
At legislative hearings, corrections officers have told lawmakers that the tough working environment sometimes contributes to an overall culture to which some new officers have a hard time adjusting. And Liberty is aware of the problem.
"Yeah I'm aware that recruiting and retention is a big problem right now, and I think they're down 45 positions at the prison, so I'll be taking a close look at that immediately," he says, "bringing the staff together and looking for solutions, not only for recruiting, but once you have the individuals there, how do you keep them there, drawing on the experience of the individuals there to assist me in retaining those people once we've trained them, once we've hired them to keep them there at the facility."
"I think the way he's worked at the Kennebec County Jail, he's a fair man, so I think he'll do a good job at it," says state Rep. Rick Long.
Long, a Sherman Republican, sits on the Legislature's Criminal and Public Safety Committee, before which Liberty has appeared to discuss a variety of county corrections issues.
Long says he believes that Liberty will bring a unique perspective to the warden's position, and fellow committee member, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Brunswick Democrat, agrees.
"He's on the ground, he's ready to go, he knows what he's doing and normally, I think looking inside of a department for bringing those people forward is a good idea," Gerzofsky says. "But in this case, I'm certainly supportive of the sheriff making that move; I'm really excited about it."
Liberty says there are still three years remaining in his term as sheriff and that means that county Democrats will have to find three candidates to succeed him who could meet the approval of the governor.