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Courts and Crime

New Rules Would Restrict Maine Prisoners' Communication with Media, Pen Pals, Each Other

AUGUSTA, Maine — Sweeping rule changes proposed by the Maine Department of Corrections are raising alarm bells for advocates, former inmates and others familiar with prison policy.

Included on the list of changes are rules that would prohibit prisoners from soliciting or communicating with a pen pal, publishing a byline or "acting as an agent of the news media."

Critics say the proposed rules are Draconian and raise free speech issues.

The Maine Department of Corrections has declined to discuss the proposed rules while they are under consideration, so it's unclear what prompted them or how they reduce recidivism.

That's a guiding principle of the Maine DOC — to use evidence-based practices and interventions that help prevent inmates from re-offending. But members of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and others say these changes appear to do the opposite by trying to cut off certain communication and further isolating inmates.

"The way to prevent recidivism is to increase those social skills, increase those ties between individuals and the community," says Peter Lehman, an advocate and former inmate. "This is completely counter-productive."

He says some of the proposed rule changes are so broad and so vague, they would give corrections staff wide leeway to crack down on anything they want.

For example, one of the proposals prohibits "unauthorized passing, giving or receiving of any written communication without authorization." A violation is a Class C crime.

That means an inmate who violates the rule could face up to ten days of segregation, a deduction of up to ten days of earned "good time," and a fine of $50.

Acting as a reporter, serving as an agent of the news media or being a guest on a broadcast will bring even stricter penalties, up to 20 days in segregation and 20 days loss of good time. So will soliciting or communicating with a pen pal, something inmates have done for many years.

"I've reviewed these proposed rules and I think there are enormous First Amendment problems with a number of them," says Zach Heiden of the ACLU of Maine.

He says prisoners have a right to communicate. That includes writing letters to the press and having them published, and publishing articles under their own bylines.

And while some prisons and jails have tried to adopt policies that restrict prisoners' communications with the outside world, Heiden says in most cases courts have struck them down.

"In 2007 a federal court struck down a federal prohibition on prisoners' writing for the news media under their own byline," he says. "We object to these rule changes and we expect that when these rules go to the attorney general for legal review before going into effect that they will not be approved."

A spokesman for the Maine attorney general's office declined comment on grounds that the public comment period on the proposed rules is still open.

Joseph Jackson, a former inmate and coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says he thinks the rules will allow the DOC to remain shrouded in secrecy, since they appear to put a freeze on any inmate's desire to speak about conditions or treatment in prison.

"They're barbaric," he says. "I mean they're outrageous. I can't believe it."

Jackson, who is now in a creative writing program at the University of Southern Maine, says he learned how to write by communicating from prison, telling his story to lawmakers, reporters and advocates.

He says he's concerned not only about the limits on speech but about how the rules will change the process for enforcing discipline behind bars.

"They're saying that you can be punished at any time," Jackson says. "There is no longer a statute of limitations. Anytime they feel they can substantiate a charge you can be charged."

For example, he says that means a prisoner who has served two years of his sentence and who's about to be released could see his plans change in an instant.

State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, a Democrat from Brunswick who serves on the Criminal Justice Committee, says he and other lawmakers will want to review the rules before they're implemented.

"There's going to have to be a point where we agree that they're necessary, that they're not frivolous," he says. "For an example, if you have someone who is incarcerated and having emotional problems, having mental health problems, we don't want that person not to be able to communicate with the outside world."

Gerzofsky says the state should not be in the business of warehousing prisoners, and should craft the rules accordingly.