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At Public Hearing, Proposed Prison Rule Changes Come Under Fire

AUGUSTA, Maine — Civil liberties groups and other advocates are calling on the state to withdraw or rewrite proposed changes to prison discipline policies that came under fire at a public hearing in Augusta Monday morning.

The ACLU of Maine, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the NAACP, former prisoners and a former corrections officer were among those objecting to rules governing everything from communication with the media and pen pals to powers of attorney, discourteous and disorderly behavior, hoarding and deception.

And no one spoke in favor of them.

Over the course of two hours, nearly 20 speakers asked the Maine Department of Corrections to consider the effect of the proposed rules, which they say would further isolate prisoners, exacerbate discipline problems and make it more difficult for inmates to successfully reintegrate into the community.

Jan Collins, the mother of an inmate at the Maine State Prison and a member of the Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says the DOC's own guidelines state that disciplinary action should not be capricious or arbitrary in nature. But Collins says some of the rules are difficult to reconcile with that objective. She points to hoarding as one example.

"Gordon has always been an avid reader," she says. "In prison, he can have five books in his cell. If he has more than five books, it is considered hoarding."

And under the proposed changes, that's a Class C offense, punishable by up to ten days in segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement. Collins says her son could also face loss of good time that he has earned, assignment of extra work, loss of privileges, a $50 fine or all of the above.

And, says Collins, for many prisoners, paying such a fine is impossible. Although they are required to work, only about 30 percent of them are actually paid for what they do.

"My son is lucky, after two years of applying for positions he now works in the kitchen, breakfast, lunch and dinner, five days a week, 52 weeks a year," she says. "His compensation is $50 a month."

Joseph Jackson is a former inmate who spent 20 years at the Maine State Prison and who now serves as the coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. He says monetary penalties used to be reserved for property damage and for treatment of injuries in prison, but Jackson says now fines are associated with every kind of infraction.

"What we've found is this constitutes a lot of money being taken away from the prison population," he says. "Just recently over $1,500 were taken for prison tattoos."

Jackson says prisoners were ordered to strip down so that they could be inspected for unauthorized tattoos. Those found to have tattoos that were not previously noted by corrections officials were fined, but Jackson says the DOC hasn't been consistent about recording tattoos, and so some prisoners who were previously sanctioned for having them were fined a second time.

"A few weeks before then they wrote up about 27 guys for having a coffee cup in the window, Class A," he says. "So that's $2,700 removed from the population for having a coffee cup in their window."

Rachel Talbot Ross of the NAACP shares Jackson's concern that if fines are increased under the proposed rules some inmates will never be able to get out of debt. Talbot Ross read testimony from several anonymous inmates who she later said declined to give their names for fear of retaliation. One took issue with the lack of clarity and subjective nature of the rule governing discourteous behavior.

"This seems to me to be a judgment call," Talbot Ross reads. "Who decides what is courteous and what is not? If an officer writes me up because I did not say please or thank you, will I be fined by the Class D protocol? Without any clear language how am I to know?"

Talbot Ross urged the DOC to revise a process begun under former Commissioner Joseph Ponte in which inmates, advocates and corrections officials worked out discipline policies together.

The DOC declined to comment on the testimony except to say that it will be taken into consideration. Final rules will be posted on the department's website.