Watching the Bee Watchers in Maine’s Prisons

By Stan Moody.

In his book, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, Dr. Seuss tells the story of a Bee-Watcher whose job it was to watch the other worker bees. The assumption was that a watched bee will work harder — but since the worker bees didn’t seem to work any harder despite their new supervision, it was decided to employ a Bee Watcher-Watcher to make certain that the original Bee Watcher was doing his job. Time and bureaucracy lumbered on, leading to a whole line of Bee Watcher-Watchers. All of which boosted the employment rolls and assured that nothing would ever be done to upset the status quo.

That story should sound pretty familiar to legislators in Maine. After all, they’re the ones that have introduced LD1611, a bill to limit the prolonged isolation of prisoners with diagnosed mental illness. But what started out as a promising measure quickly disintegrated into something that would simply ask the Maine Department of Corrections to study the problem — with the much more limited goal of defining how prison officials can maintain security without harming prisoners’ mental health.

As a former legislator, I am sensitive to the pressures that legislative committee members are under to appeal to all sides of an issue. But when it comes to handling prisoners’ mental health, we need lawmakers who don’t simply lock prisoners away in solitary confinement for years or choose to dump them summarily in the streets once their sentence is through. Trying to distract from these issues — as some committee members did, saying how prison reform advocates were insulting staff who “put their lives on the line every day” — isn’t helpful.

Meanwhile, LD1611 is just the latest layer in a chain of initiatives launched by Maine’s Board of Corrections and other councils and committees — all of which have become so enmeshed in the Department of Corrections that you literally cannot find your way to the rest room without an escort. The Bee Watchers and the Bee Watcher-Watchers are now happily watching each other in mutual collaboration. And still, nothing’s getting done on the real issue of solitary confinement — or other likewise pressing issues in Maine’s prisons.

For example, back in June 2009, the legislative Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability submitted a report that documented the systemic reluctance on the part of prison staff to report unethical or dangerous situations within the prison (for fear of recrimination or reprisals). That report was given to the Board of Corrections for action. The Board of Corrections, in turn — under the astute maneuvering of the legislative oversight committee — directed the Department of Corrections to continue its cultural change work and report back. Translation: “Bury this report in your cultural change file.”

How can we confront the resistance to change that seems completely entrenched in Maine? I’ve come up with a possible remedy. Submit a bevy of bills in this next legislative session that keeps the Department of Corrections busy rounding up the troops to circle the wagons, watching each other watch each other. In fact, let’s keep them so busily on defense that the legislators on the committee will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that the shroud of secrecy surrounding Maine’s prisons has to be pierced. It’s the only way to drag Maine kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Are you watching? I am!