I’ve never seen anything like it! Opposition to the solitary confinement bill, LD 1611, on Feb. 17 brought out an army of corrections officials, guards, social services staff and hangers on, all glaring with contempt at the assortment of people advocating for prisoner rights. It was an army coming out after a guy with a slingshot. If there was one there were 50 people lining up to cover the commissioner’s back. With the committee as obviously in his pocket as it is, it is totally mystifying as to why he would need anything more than a pack of Rolaids.

The only conclusion an objective observer could reach was, “Me thinks you protesteth too much!” Objectivity, however, was in scarce supply.

The committee missed the point entirely. If it takes an army to silence a guy with a slingshot, what does it take to silence a prisoner with nothing but a pen and a piece of paper? That question was answered over and over again — it takes a dysfunctional system with a fierce commitment to secrecy. What you do is more important than how you do it, so long as you don’t cross that proverbial line.

Perhaps the sage was right: “The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword.”

Spearheaded by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, advocates included family members of prisoners, former prisoners themselves, psychologists, the Maine Coalition Against Solitary Confinement and yours truly, a former chaplain and notorious traitor for daring to speak out against a system run by and defended by a lot of otherwise good people who could do a lot better if somebody threw open the windows of the place.

As I watched this circus play itself out, there were a number of tough guys and ladies displaying their toughness by flexing their muscles. One high ranking official who shall remain nameless and, we hope, extinct as the Baldacci administration winds down, shoved into me and by me on the way to the hearing room with, “Excuse me.” It was the only way he had of demonstrating his toughness, I guess.

Do these people really exist, or are we watching a bad movie? What kind of $125,000 a year professionals would hide behind a $14.50 an hour prison guard? Look around the room, and you could see the future of corrections in Maine, absent an overhaul.

Ironically, it was Ash Wednesday, a day for those of us who claim to have put our “… hands in the hand of the man from Galilee” to reflect on the true meaning of life — that we are judged by the way we treat and advocate for the least of those among us, prisoners and prison guards alike.

When I finally delivered my testimony, there was one tough guy leaning against the wall of the committee room who was laboring under the illusion that he was going to throw me off by scowling at me and making faces. He may have been a colonel for all I know. I should love to have had this guy with me when I took over a big iron foundry plant in the middle of Detroit (that’s Michigan, by the way) and had to close down a whorehouse open for business in the casting warehouse after the second shift.

The people I look forward to hearing from are the employees at the Maine State Prison who had the courage to say “No thank you” to the invitation to join this cluster. It was curious that many of the palace guard at the hearing were from the Windham Correctional Center that has no segregation facility and therefore had no stake in the bill.

I had an engaging conversation with a high ranking prison official who expressed disappointment in the tone of my articles as disrespectful of staff. I tried to explain to him that this is not personal, but that I am Hegelian in my approach to change. In order to get movement off dead center — in this case to move out of the 19th century, for God’s sake — you have to lurch to the other extreme so that you can meet together at the center, dubbed by Hegel as “synthesis.”

“There are a lot of good people down there, Stan,” he said. True enough, and I think I have acknowledged that many times. “It hurts them to go home to their families every day and hear the horror stories about what a few bad apples are doing wrong down there.” Is there a problem with familial trust here?

I despise that “few bad apples” argument. We are to believe that the people in corrections are good people but are being sidelined by a few bad apples. Why not learn how to figure out who are the bad apples and get rid of them? Why not put policies in place that reward good apples instead of leaving them in the barrel to rot?

One of the guards said to me one day, “This place is run like a Third World country.” This is about the ability to manage people. If you don’t know how to manage people, you will find yourself surprised by bad apples who get away with being bad apples because they know they can.

If that’s disrespectful, so be it.

There are some 25 people running for governor. For nearly two centuries, we have prided ourselves on spotting good apples in corrections and have rewarded them with tenure and power. Is it too much to hope that whoever lands at the top of this system in the next election has the courage and skill to hire good managers instead of good apples?