Violence in the Maine State Prison:
An Inmates Perspective
A recipe for an environment of violence: mix poorly trained guards with ridiculous prison rules, add violent and nonviolent offenders, mental health patients, delinquent kids and confine them in a small space. Over the course of this essay I am hoping to show a connection between prison violence and not being able to do what I call "jailing."
First, please let me explain what I mean by the term "jailing." Jailing simply means being able to settle in and do time peacefully. Jailing is very important to the prisoners serving long sentences (I am one of these individuals). I have come to realize, as do the majority of inmates who are serving long sentences, that being in prison is our punishment. Also, we accept the rules which help this prison run smoothly. However, it is not the Corrections Officer's responsibility to punish inmates while in prison for crimes which put them in prisons. Simply put, individuals are here in prison as punishment, not for punishment.
When we moved to the new prison in Warren from the old prison in Thomaston, it was a big shock to many of us. The move brought together two different prison populations - inmates with long sentences and prisoners sentenced to one or two years. The prisoners coming from Windham Correctional were usually younger and serving short sentences; prisoners from Thomaston were old-timers doing more time. When these different inmate factions - the old-timers and young kids - were forced to live together in the same pod, it made for lots of fights. The friction only increased when many of our privileges were taken away or severely reduced as punishment for behavioral problems amongst these younger prisoners.
At the Warren facility the visiting hours were cut back, means to earn money were severely limited and many new vague and ridiculous rules were implemented and enforced. However, as time went on, we became acclimated to the new facility and its odd rules.
Then the staff decided to enforce some rules they had earlier neglected. According to them we were getting too "comfortable". When we first moved in, we were given some leeway in the way we maintained our cells. I had pictures of my family on the table along with books and correspondence from friends and relatives. Then one day out of the blue, we were ordered to put everything in our footlockers. Furthermore, we were told our footlockers must be placed under our beds. Everything we owned had to not only fit in the locker but also must be kept there. No pictures of family anywhere but in a photo album kept in my footlocker. Their excuse - correspondence, books, magazines, newspapers and pictures are fire hazards. By the way, if an item is not a fire hazard, then it is a security threat.
This is a new seventy-seven (77) million dollar prison with top of the line fire sprinklers system in each cell as well as the latest fire sensors and smoke detectors. The prison in Thomaston was more than one hundred years old and had none of these fire detection gadgets. Yet in the old prison we had a space on the wall for pictures of our loved ones, posters, calendars, and drawings from our kids, nieces, nephews, grandsons and granddaughters - our memories. Not here, nothing on the walls - nothing to remind us of our loved ones - just bare concrete - a "concrete jungle."
However, visit some of the offices here and you will find proud displays of calendars, pictures of family members, sports stars, team memorabilia, posters, plants, etc. No fire hazard? If officers, who are here only for eight or nine hours a day have a need to personalize their offices, make it more like home, feel human and comfortable in a place of hate and violence, why shouldn’t we be allowed to feel the same way? We live here twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and some of us are never getting out.
These things may seem very trivial for people who are free or those who are serving smaller sentences but it is very important for us lifers. You can’t expect people to live out of a box. These cells are our home and these pods are our neighborhoods. We should be given some freedom to create a safe place to rest our heads and calm our hearts. Each of us has a need of a place, no matter how small or how humble, that can offer us sanctuary where we may replenish body and soul.
Poorly trained guards and their hotheaded supervisors are another factor that has lead to an increase in violence. Officers are encouraged to take on the responsibility of punishing inmates for their sentenced crimes. They believe that inmates won’t come back if they make prison difficult, frustrating and inhumane. They treat inmates, older and younger ones alike, as punks (a very derogatory term used in prison vocabulary). The officers perceive treating prisoners humanely as not part of their job description. They harbor a secret fear of losing their authority and overcompensate for it by being irrational and arrogant. This problem is further compounded by the fact that some inmates do not know their rights and therefore are victimized repeatedly. Left unchallenged, these guards, in turn, believe that they can get away with anything on anyone. To top this all, some guards not only victimize inmates but they encourage or allow inmates to abuse one another - victims are turned into victimizers.
To grow we need to feel safe, secure and comfortable in our environment. Also, to have certain stability in our lives we need some structure and order in our lives so that we are not overwhelmed by chaos and stress. This chaos and stress in our environment plays havoc on our day-to-day life and leads to anger which may turn into violence. Allowing prisoners to create a little comfortable, relaxing, safe space for themselves, especially in their cell, gives them some sense of dignity and control over their own lives. They feel human - this is jailing.
Anonymous, Maine State Prison, Warren, Maine.
July -> Mid Sept
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Peaks Island, ME 04108
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