Prison racism at forefront following inmate assault
Warren — Maine State Prison officials and the president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP met Feb. 25 to confer about racism in the prison system and how to abate its presence.
The meeting was part of a quarterly check-in between the entities, established two years ago. The meeting agenda was expanded to cover the recent arrest of Corrections Capt. David J. Cutler for allegedly assaulting an inmate.
Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, Maine State Warden Rodney Bouffard and Rachel Talbot Ross of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People met in a regularly scheduled assembly in Warren.
According to an investigation by the Department of Corrections, in December Cutler pulled Renardo Williams' legs from under him after he refused to sit when told to do so. Williams' hands were cuffed behind his back at the time of the incident.
Sgt. John Howlett, who was a witness to the incident, told investigator Joseph Fagone that Williams did not act aggressively and verified actions described by Williams.
Williams filed a grievance with the prison following the episode. Williams is black.
Williams told Ross race was a factor in the assault. He was transferred to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham Jan.6.
His grievance was dismissed by the Department of Corrections, citing it was submitted on an incorrect form, said Ross.
"Prisoners don't have these forms in their cells — they are given to them by the administration," she said, adding inmates may be discouraged from filing grievances as they think their claims will not be taken seriously and the process is not a legitimate avenue for justice.
"They are [inmates] essentially in a situation where there is no way to exercise their civil rights," she said, adding that data proves there is a lack of due process at the prison.
Williams is represented by Bangor-based civil rights attorney Eric Mehnert. Ross said she will meet with Williams and his counsel March 2.
Mehnert said Williams told him that after he submitted the initial form and it was dismissed, he filed the grievance again on a new form, but was told he could not file two complaints about one incident.
Mehnert said Williams is required to exhaust administrative remedies — filing a grievance — before seeking court action.
The dismissal does not prevent the Department of Corrections from investigating. The investigation by the Department of Corrections led to Cutler's arrest Feb. 20.
The NAACP has a fully-functioning branch inside the Maine State Prison that is run by inmates and is one of the few branches in a prison system in New England. The foundation has had a branch in the system since the late 1980s.
The foundation is a resource for inmates for legal representation and redress, family and vocational strengthening and protecting rights of all inmates, Ross said.
The foundation and the Department of Corrections is working together to mitigate "institutionalized racism" by interviewing "a list of inmates of color" to determine if racism is practiced and what specific areas need to be examined, said Ross.
Mehnert said there are ongoing discussions with his client to determine what action to pursue and added there is concern about a culture at the prison that targets individuals of color.
Williams may file a civil rights complaint.
Ross said the new leadership at the prison strongly indicates changes will be made and added the NAACP is committed to ensuring the issue remains at the forefront of examination. She is confident the administration will take an honest look at the system but said there is still a long way to go.
"At the end of the day, we still have an inmate whose story has not been fully heard," Ross said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.