WARREN, Maine - Inmates, attorneys and civil rights advocates are hoping to revamp what they say is an unworkable grievance process at the Maine State Prison. Grievances are the only way for those behind bars to seek redress for mistreatment, conditions and other concerns.
Prisoners can't file lawsuits in federal court until they've extinguished the internal grievance process.
In Part 2 of our report on prison policy, Susan Sharon reports on some proposed ideas for making fundamental improvements to the system that governs the lives of Maine prisoners.
About two years ago, former Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte undertook something considered pretty unusual in his world: He invited several current and former prisoners, advocates and members of his staff to a series of meetings to discuss revisions to the prison grievance policy.
"We were going over the grievance policy line by line. It's probably like 14-pages long," says Joseph Jackson. Jackson is a former inmate who is now the coordinator for the Maine Prisoners' Advocacy Coalition.
Jackson was among those who attended the meetings. "There were some words that had no concrete definition, and so you could never nail down what it was that a person did. It was at somebody's discretion of what it meant. And so we needed to nail down some of those things."
The talks stalled and then fell apart last year, according to several of those who were at the table. Commissioner Ponte has since left Maine to run New York City's jails. But Jackson and other advocates are hopeful the talks can resume.
At issue, says Rachel Talbot Ross, of the NAACP's Portland chapter, is the inconsistent way the grievance policy is implemented in different correctional facilities in Maine, as well as what appears to be a high rate of dismissals of prisoners' complaints at the Maine State Prison. The NAACP and others want to know why.
"There's no way we'd say that all grievances and all disciplinary decisions were invalid," Talbot Ross says, "but there has to be some transparency and some accountability in the process. This is their only avenue for redress."
For starters, advocacy groups would like the Department of Corrections to track and analyze prisoners' grievances, the number that are filed, dismissed and validated. But they would also like a new approach, citing how other prisons include community members, and even an inmate or two, in the grievance review process. Maine's system relies exclusively on corrections staff, including a grievance review officer.
"You build trust back into the system because inmates and administrators know that there is a fair and impartial review," says Talbot Ross. "Unfortunately, and it's nobody's fault, but you find folks who are serving as grievance review officers who've had other roles in the facility or have been in the facility for 20 or 30 years. And so there's a perception of that officer being co-opted, then, by the system."
"We need advocates to come in here," says inmate Frank Fournier. "The state has taken our advocate right completely out. We need 'em bad!"
Fournier was among those who spoke at a discussion organized by the NAACP's prison chapter inside the Maine State Prison in Warren in March. Fournier is serving a 50-year sentence for murder. Until several years ago there was a designated advocate at the prison for inmates. Before that Fournier also recalls getting assistance filing grievances from law students while at the old prison in Thomaston.
He says the current system leaves prisoners vulnerable. "We got line officers, sergeants and captains going over the deputy warden's head and going over the warden's head and don't even know it," he said. "And we try to speak to them about it. They won't listen to us. I'd like to see some help in here."
Jon Wilson, a member of the Maine State Prison's Board of Visitors, which provides oversight of prison policy, says the chief advocate was never too popular with inmates when he was on staff. And when the position was being considered for elimination several years ago, Wilson says it was difficult to make a strong argument to keep it.
"I did kind of a survey of other systems to see what they had for inmate advocacy, and Maine was the only - only one of two states with such a position, a chief advocate position," Wilson says. Wilson's not convinced that bringing back the advocate is the way to go, or that the grievance process should be revamped to include inmates in the regular review.
Department of Corrections officials declined to be interviewed for this story because of pending lawsuits involving grievances and discipline. One of them is a case involving Maine State Prison inmate Douglas Burr.
"Mr. Burr has been in solitary confinement since June 14th of 2014," says Eric Mehnert, an attorney for Douglas Burr, who has filed a civil rights lawsuit against corrections officials in Kennebec County Superior Court.
"They claim that under their grievance policy that they can hold him as a 'security risk' without telling him why he's a security risk, without ever having a hearing," Mehnert says. "They claim they can hold him there indefinitely."
"Does that mean they could hold him there for his entire sentence?" I ask.
"Absolutely," Mehnert says. "My understanding of their interpretation is that they can hold him there - and they argued at oral argument that they could absolutely hold him there for the rest of his sentence in solitary confinement."
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that a prison corporal falsified information on a disciplinary report that led to Burr being placed in solitary confinement, and that corrections staff "continuously and systematically violated the policies and procedures of the Maine Department of Corrections and the due process rights of Douglas Burr."
"It's more and more punitive in the past five or six years," says former inmate-turned-advocate Joseph Jackson. Jackson says he's seen the Maine State Prison get tougher on discipline in recent years, while dismissing many grievances. And he says that has coincided with an increase in prison violence.
"You've had five or six deaths and in the previous 15 there was none," Jackson says. "And no one seems to be able to correlate that with the increasing punitive stance of the facility."
Jackson says he hopes to be able to make that case himself when he meets with Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick next month.