Randall Liberty, the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, has objected to a request from a parole reform committee created by the State Legislature to interview inmates as part of its members’ work to determine whether Maine should bring back parole after a 45 year ban.
Members of CERP, which held its first meeting in September, are charged in part with examining parole as it operates in Maine and other states, how parole fits into the framework of the Maine Criminal Code, its effects on parolees, and the potential costs and savings of a plan to implement parole after it was ended in Maine four and a half decades ago.
Legislators in the 130th Legislature’s second session passed the resolution to create the commission, which became law without the Gov. Janet Mills’ signature on June 8.
Maine abolished parole in 1976. LD 842, the resolution creating the commission, began as a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos (I-Friendship) to reestablish parole. However, after Attorney General Aaron Frey and Gov. Mills expressed opposition to the bill, a committee amendment replaced the bill’s original text with a resolve to create the CERP.
As part of their work, CERP members requested to visit Maine prisons and hear testimony from members of Maine’s incarcerated population. The committee also wants to attend a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACPP meeting. Both items have become flashpoints as the legislative body attempts to fulfill its mandate.
During the public testimony portion of its meetings, commission members have heard testimony from prisoners currently in DOC custody through surrogates. Commission members have expressed a desire to hear more directly from prisoners who would be affected by its recommendations and had proposed a tour of the Maine State Prison, to include a presentation from prisoners. The tour was a subject of discussion at the commission’s October 7 and October 14 meetings.
However, DOC officials have objected to commissioners hearing a presentation, alleging it would disrupt the prison’s daily operations
At the commission’s October 7 meeting, during discussion of the commission’s proposed visit, DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty said the presentation has not been approved.
“It was presented to us as a tour, to go to the Maine State Prison. But as far as having residents engage and present and all of that, it’s very disruptive to the operation. It would require us, with our staffing levels, to lock everyone in during that duration. No programming, no education, no training would be happening because of that,” said Liberty.
“It also is precedent setting for us to have commissions or legislative committees going to the facilities and causing that sort of disruption. If the residents want to testify to this commission, they can do that in writing, and submit it like any other resident or have a proxy read it to this commission, but as far as having a presentation at a correctional facility by legislative bodies or commissions, it’s too disruptive to the operation,” Liberty said.
Evangelos, who serves on the commission, objected to Liberty’s statement that such a visit would be precedent setting, noting that groups such as civic and legislative groups visit the prions and that “the precedent is there.”
Evangelos also added that the commission could possibly attend the monthly meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) local branch.
Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), the commission’s House of Representatives chair, asked members to let presiding officers handle the matter. Legislative approval of the commission’s visit requires the Legislative Council sign-off on a request.
The request to visit the prison was not submitted to the Legislative Council following the October 7 meeting because of uncertainty over whether the commission would be requesting only a tour or a presentation from prisoners as well.
It was again a topic of discussion at the commission’s October 14 meeting. Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec), who was absent from the portion of the commission’s previous meeting when the tour was discussed, reiterated the commission’s goals and noted the commission had heard some testimony about how parole might affect prisoners, but had heard it through others’ voices and had not had a chance to talk directly with prisoners.
“This tour is to inform the work of the commission in evaluating the potential impact that reestablishing parole could have on the residents of the prison and other facilities operated by the Department of Corrections.” said Hickman, who serves as the commission’s Senate chair.
Hickman discussed requesting the meeting, following approval from the Legislative Council, take place on October 27 in conjunction with the NAACP’s meeting.
Evangelos reiterated comments similar to those he made during the previous meeting.
“The reason we were given [for not receiving approval of the visit] is it would disrupt the daily functions of the prisons however I know for a fact every week, every month there are special programs going on in the prison where they make exceptions and hold events,” said Evangelos, who cited voter registration events and concerts held at the prison.
Evangelos added that he’d talked with the president of the local NAACP chapter, who had extended an invitation to the commission and said that they would be attending a regular meeting, which should not be disruptive.
The commission did not intend to put filing the request to visit the prison to a vote, but following objection from Susan Gagnon, a DOC representative standing in for Liberty, more discussion ensued.
Hickman addressed Gagnon, saying he was not satisfied with the department’s “nonanswer” about why the commission’s presence would be disruptive to the prison.
“Because we know that there have been presentations, meetings, voter registration drives and every other thing that happened that happened at the Maine State Prison, why would hearing from the residents around this subject be anymore disruptive than those things?” Hickman asked.
“And I wish that I could speak to what the conversation was before. I can only report back to what I have been briefed on in regards to it being disruptive. I understand that there are additional meetings that occur and I can’t speak to the logistics.” Gagnon replied.
Gagnon further objected to the commission’s request to attend the NAACP’s October 27 meeting, but said the DOC does support the commission touring the prison and that, should the commission visit the prison, they would be able to talk to residents who were out.
Evangelos noted this would not be representative of the prison’s population.
The commission voted five to two, with two abstentions, to submit the request to the Legislative Council. The request was submitted on the same day, with both Hickman’s and Warren’s signatures.
The ability of female prisoners to provide testimony to the commission has also been the source of a dispute between commission members and the DOC. During the commission’s October 14 meeting, Warren alleged female prisoners were blocked from submitting testimony directly to the commission.
In a separate comment, during the exchange with Gagnon, Warren also says that she has offered to assist women seeking to submit clemency petitions and can only correspond with them through the traditional mail system. Warren added that case workers had told her they are not allowed to take information from prisoners and pass it to her.
“I’ve been advised that the women, as anyone, are able to provide written testimony, submit testimony to this legislative hearing, that it’s written and submitted to their caseworkers and then emailed on. So if something was not emailed on, that’s something we can look into, but that is our process.” Gagnon said in response.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about why it believes the commission’s presence would be disruptive or why commission members were being denied the opportunity to meet with prisoners when other groups have been able to do so.