NAACP leader challenges Maine prison policies

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  December 10, 2008

Like a movie hero, the NAACP’s new, young national president, Benjamin Jealous, swept into the 900-inmate Maine State Prison in Warren on Monday, quelling protests among the prisoners and, at least temporarily, rescuing the organization’s prison chapter from being snuffed out by state corrections officials.

This is the story as told by inmate Michael Parker, the chapter’s leader. He said Jealous and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Portland branch were the prison group’s “saviors” in negotiations with state Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson and prison officials.

But prison budget cutbacks — Magnusson admitted they were a behind-the-scenes cause of the contention — may get worse, and their consequences could again stir up inmates, who treasure their few social and service activities, which they saw being squelched.

One of the most active prisoner groups, with about 70 inmate members, the NAACP had protested the prison’s recent tightening of control over prisoner organizations. Officials had demanded approval of groups’ officers, strict limitations on fundraising — including on total dues, thereby capping enrollment — and a maximum of one meeting a month per group.

“Since July we’ve only been able to meet twice,” Parker said in a prison interview. The new policies, he added, would have destroyed the organization.

The NAACP was also concerned that the new restrictions would kill the “re-entry” program it has proposed to help prisoners get ready for life in the outside world as their sentences end. The prison provides little re-entry guidance. And the NAACP feared its program of providing educational videos to inmates would die.

The policies also upset other inmate groups. The 25-year-old Long Timer’s Group had complained in a letter to the Phoenix that the restrictions had ended its program of photographing prisoners with family members in the visitors’ room.

More broadly, a Long Timer’s Group representative, Charles Whitehouse, protested “degeneration in every crucial area of prison life: food, activities, programs, visits, mail, and overall staff attitude toward rehabilitation.”

Emerging from the closed-door negotiations, Magnusson and Jealous said in a news conference they had agreed the controversial policies would be re-examined, with a January 15 deadline for results from the next round of negotiations. Magnusson said he had never intended to cap enrollment in prisoner organizations.

He and Jealous also announced that the NAACP prison voter-registration drive held earlier this year would become annual, and that Magnusson would ensure prison staff would not treat Parker unfairly because of his activism. Parker has previously complained he has been “harassed” by guards. Magnusson admitted “inappropriate action” had been taken against the 32-year-old Parker, who is serving 20 years for robbery and assault.

“This facility is small enough to solve problems,” observed Jealous, who has been involved in prison issues around the country. Nationally, African Americans are imprisoned at a much higher rate than whites.

Magnusson said he had instituted the rules to treat each prison group equally, though he conceded that “budget problems” — not enough staff to “cover” prisoner group meetings — were one reason for promulgating them.

But now Magnusson’s tight prison budget may get tighter, as state government braces for another round of cuts by Governor John Baldacci and the Legislature to deal with a recession-induced gap between tax revenues and expenses over the next few fiscal years. The gap is expected to run into many hundreds of millions of dollars.

“There’s no question we’re going to have reductions,” Magnusson said, noting he’s already straining to pay overtime — necessitated by guard shortages — and has cut back on guard training.

Jealous, 35, an activist since the age of 14, took charge in September of the country’s oldest civil rights group, headquartered in Baltimore. He previously had directed Amnesty International’s US human-rights program. A Columbia University graduate, he was a Rhodes Scholar at England’s Oxford University.

Early in the day, Jealous had spoken to students at Portland’s Deering High School, his father’s alma mater. He had also addressed close to 100 inmates at an NAACP meeting at the prison.

In the evening, Jealous charged up several hundred people as the keynote speaker of a colorful, emotional, joyous, and sometimes somber celebration of International Human Rights Day at the University of Southern Maine. The NAACP and Amnesty International also sponsored the event. A multiethnic children’s chorus sang, and a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, and a Hindu recited prayers remembering the Mumbai terrorist victims. Human Rights Day is actually December 10, the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Introducing Jealous at the USM event, Rachel Talbot Ross, the Portland NAACP president, turned to Governor Baldacci, who had spoken briefly, and told him commandingly: “We got some work to do, governor, at the prison!” The audience applauded.

Baldacci, who has kept a hands-off attitude toward the prison’s problems, also clapped, but weakly.

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