Maines Prison Secrets
March 25, 2010
Having worked in industry, started and operated my own businesses, been a pastor, a state legislator and a prison chaplain and lived from Maine to California, there isn’t much that surprises me anymore. I have to say, however, that I was taken aback when I received a call from a Deputy Warden at Maine State Prison at 9:30 am on Monday, April 27, 2009.
“Stan, the warden wishes to express his appreciation for your report on your conversation with Sheldon Weinstein last Friday.”
Weinstein died of a ruptured spleen on Friday, April 24, in cell B117 of Maine State Prison’s Special Management Unit within an hour or so of my request that he be given toilet paper. He had been using his pillow case, but he had no pillow anyway. That was all in my report.
“We are launching an investigation and are asking that you keep your report secret until the investigation is complete.” Then, to punctuate the intrigue, she reiterated as a warning shot across my bow the point of her call, “Stan, we have to keep this secret for a long time.” To establish a record of the conversation, I confirmed it with mutual emails minutes later.
What is it that we have to keep secret? By that time, Weinstein’s death was a matter of public record. I had had a robust conversation with Sheldon before requesting the toilet paper for him. That he could die of “natural causes” within an hour or two of our conversation was puzzling. That he was found sitting on his bed with his feet on his wheelchair, the exact opposite of his attitude when we talked, was even more puzzling.
What’s the secret here? Was it lack of toilet paper or the implication of foul play or the implication of medical and security neglect? Why would prison administration make a point of sending me a clear message that I was to keep quiet about this for “a long time”?
Here is it, 11 months later, and all we have heard from this investigation is that in mid June it was officially ruled by the Maine State Police as a homicide. The Attorney General’s Office remains silent. The Governor’s Office remains silent. The Department of Corrections has raised a smoke screen in hiring a new warden and marshalling righteous indignation over the language of LD1611, a bill to tighten controls over abuse in segregation. What are they trying to keep secret?
It is really not that complicated.
Everything in prison is a secret. Prisons operate under a shroud of secrecy. Maine State Prison is particularly easy to keep secret because it is an antiseptic environment that exudes the feeling of openness while protecting a veneer over the human element of incarceration – of both staff and prisoners.
The biggest secrets, however, are buried within the folds of personnel reports. To become an administrator at the prison, you have to have put in your time in the trenches. While you must carry out the dictates of a myriad of written policies handed down by the Department of Corrections, you cannot be caught operating strictly by the book. “Get the job done, but don’t tell us how you did it.” In other words, do what you can to maintain control and keep everything secret, including what you do and how you do it, for “a long time” – long enough, hopefully, for the problem to go away. The unwritten rule is CYA and ours. The avalanche of prisoner lawsuits piling up in the AG’s office is testimony that not everyone is fooled by the façade of transparency.
Prison administrators lock into the 3-monkey defense – “see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil.” Prison guards are left with their heinies hanging out in the breeze. The Department of Corrections, safely lodged far away in Augusta, can continue to churn out policies to cover every circumstance and feign surprise when something goes awry and talk about bad apples in the barrel. Guards, meanwhile, being the lowest on the food chain, always take the heat when something happens – usually with paid administrative leave and return to duty after a respectable period of unavailability for comment.
The “long blue line” of secrecy is amazingly impenetrable even among those who have left for greener pastures.
Sheldon Weinstein would have been 65 years old on Friday, March 26, exactly 4 weeks to the day from when he was found deceased in his cell, efficiently processed and bureaucratically dispatched. How do I know that? I must keep that secret for “a long time.”