Maine is likely not the first state one thinks of as a place to investigate the impunity of the criminal legal system. That’s due to several factors, including but not limited to: 1.) the state’s whiteness, 2.) its small population, and 3.) its remoteness. Yet, the state is rife with examples of the unaccountable impunity of the criminal legal system that are worth studying for abolitionists.
Take, for example, the Maine attorney general’s perfect rating of police using deadly force since 1990. The office has never found officers unjustified in using deadly force, even though they consistently top other New England states in police-perpetrated killings. There have been plenty of questionable deployments of deadly force by police in the state, and yet, the Maine attorney general’s office has never seen an problem with any of them.
Meanwhile, Maine’s jails and prisons, like all others, remain a deadly environment. One report found that there were approximately 39 deaths over about six years inside the state’s jails and prisons. Some of these deaths were not initially reported to the federal government, as required by law. Additionally, those incarcerated at Maine state prisons have discussed their experiences of extended time in solitary confinement, contradicting jail administrators’ claim that they don’t use the practice.
Then, there is the lone youth prison facility in the state. Long Creek, as it is known, is notorious for reports of excessive force, sexual assault, extended periods of isolation and the use of the dangerous “prone” restraint. The governor vetoed a bill that would close the so-called “youth development center.”
The State Senate also failed to pass a bill to eliminate the one-year statute of limitation for “introducing newly discovered evidence in convicted persons’ cases.” Those accused of crimes in Maine are also often left without public defense attorneys to take on their cases. Moreover, leaks revealed the state’s development of a “massive surveillance apparatus” via the state’s fusion center, which, among other things, “illegally surveil[ed] racial justice protestors, environmental activists, and counselors at an Israel-Palestine peacebuilding camp.”
All of this isn’t necessarily surprising, especially for abolitionists. However, it’s evidence that the criminal legal system in Maine, like everywhere across the United States, operates with impunity. The state is worthy of further study, especially given some of its more recent, purportedly “progressive” rhetoric and policies.
For example, county officials in Penobscot County, Maine’s third-most populous county, are seeking to expand the jail capacity in Bangor. They are promoting this expansion using rhetoric surrounding the need to expand programs and services to address mental health and substance use disorder. Their attempts trace back at least 10 years, all the while the jail has been embroiled in various scandals, including numerous deaths at the jail, sexual harassment and reports of negligence by guards related to COVID-19.
Scandal has not deterred the county from using the logic of health to push forward expansion of the local jail’s capacity. In 2016, Sheriff Troy Morton raised alarm bells about attempting to treat people with mental health and substance use disorders in the jail, citing the associated costs. Morton called mental health, homelessness and substance use disorders a “societal issue,” saying that treatment only goes so far without other material resources.
Morton used this “progressive” rhetoric to push for construction of a new jail in the face of overcrowding. One way he has done this is by pushing for more space for programming and treatment. In 2017, the jail operated a program targeting women addicted to drugs inside the jail in an effort to counsel women on drug use and provide medication-assisted treatment. Fewer than 10 percent of the women would succeed in transitioning to treatment services after their incarceration, but the program was renewed at a cost of $350,000.
All of this was part of the justification for a new jail proposal the county introduced in 2019. The concept called for a four-story building, with each story serving as a “mini-jail,” along with additional space throughout the facility so that, in a few decades, the county could add another 120 beds. At the time, Sheriff Morton noted that this would “achieve our mission of operating a safe and humane jail.” While he was initially unsuccessful, the county continues to pursue a new/renovated jail under these “health” logics.
Initially, Penobscot County officials explored using American Rescue Plan Act funds for the expansion, before using $1.2 million to pay for three renovations to the facility. Most recently, the county has sought to shift the language from expansion to “renovation.” The distinction, in their eyes, is that the county is having to board out many incarcerated people to other county jails, and that renovation will both, address the “human cost” of boarding and allow the county to incarcerate everyone in its custody.
Additionally, a recent jail culture study noted that the structure of the building does not provide adequate space for medical and mental health treatment, using it as evidence to support expansion. The county hired a lobbyist in April 2023 to promote “a facility for mental health and opioid treatment,” which County Commissioner Andre Cushing confirmed was a euphemism for a new jail. After the vote to confirm the contract with Patriot Consulting, it was revealed that Commissioner Cushing had been a client of Patriot Consulting in the past, eventually leading to the firm pulling out of the contract. The city continues to seek a lobbyist for the project.
Jail renovation and expansion efforts continue in the face of ongoing scandals. In late September the county fired a correctional officer accused of sexual violence against two women incarcerated at the facility. The county also promoted an officer in June who was previously accused of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, around that same time, Sheriff Morton continued emphasizing that the jail needs to be replaced because they are unable to retain officers and meet the mission of maintaining a “safe and humane environment.” As of July, the county appears to be seeking locations to build a new jail, but it is expected that they will, first, put a funding bond up to a countywide vote before proceeding.
There has been pushback against this proposed expansion. My organization, No Penobscot Jail Expansion, has conducted public education events and is a consistent presence at county commissioner meetings. It is this pushback that has been vital in helping stall the process, including in helping upend the “mini-jail” proposal back in 2020. The fight continues however, as the county is continuing to push this as the solution to rising substance use disorder and declining mental health.
Overall, Maine’s tactics must be studied as a warning to people who feel their states are more “progressive.” Judah Schept warned of this phenomenon in his book Progressive Punishment in 2015. We see this in Weber County, Utah; Fulton County, Georgia; Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California; and Pitkin County, Colorado, among other places around the country.
Governments continue working to further advance their tactics in the face of a rising crisis of legitimacy for the criminal legal system. The logics of “progressivism,” particularly drug and mental health treatment, continue to creep into the state’s rhetoric as they attempt to wrestle back legitimacy. These tactics, if not fully interrogated, further obscure the system’s violence.
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