LD1611, the bill that would have restricted the isolation of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement/segregation, eventually passed as a resolve, asking the Maine Department of Corrections to study the problem and report back. What surprised me, as a former legislator and prison chaplain, was the rousing chorus of support from the press and interested parties.

While useful for raising public awareness, this was no substantive win. The legislative landscape is littered with good ideas that have been diluted by timid legislators into resolves. Meanwhile, the department has accumulated one more golden opportunity to study itself, a familiar job security measure. Were I the commissioner, I would have called a busman’s holiday to celebrate by performance of neglected duties the victory over one more attempt at transparency and accountability. Take off the protest stickers, retreat from lobbying in the halls of the Maine State Legislature, get back to work.

In June 2009, OPEGA, the legislative Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, issued its report on a study it had conducted on the systemic cultural staff problems within Maine State Prison. The conclusion was that staff was unwilling to report abuses because of a history of, or perception of, intimidation, retaliation, harassment, discrimination, distrust, lack of respect and the prevalence of a “good old boy” network. The Joint Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety thanked them for their good work and palmed the report off to its newly-created Board of Corrections. The Board of Corrections then palmed the report off to the Department of Corrections, directing them to continue the cultural change they had previously initiated and report back by January 2010. Naturally, as in the customary course of events, January 2010 came and went, witnessing the department circling the wagons to turn LD1611 into mush.

I was reminded of a popular Dr. Suess book, “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” It is the story of a worker bee in Hawtch-Hawtch who is suspected of not working very hard. A Bee Watcher is hired to keep an eye on the lazy worker bee under the assumption that a watched bee will work harder. Despite his being watched, the worker bee did not seem to work any harder, so it was decided to employ a Bee Watcher-Watcher to make certain that the Bee Watcher was doing his job. Time and bureaucracy lumbered on, leading to a whole line of Bee Watcher-Watchers, boosting the employment rolls and assuring that nothing would ever be done to upset the status quo. We might conjecture that, when challenged, the Bee Watcher-Watchers retorted, “You don’t know what we are up against.” They would be right! They are up against each other.

LD1611 follows suit behind such initiatives as the Visiting Committee, the Board of Corrections and other councils and committees 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 in mutual collaboration instead of initiating much-needed change. You might refer to this as the Busy Bee Syndrome.

In wondering how to confront the denial that seems entrenched in this system, I have come up with a possible solution. Submit a bevy of bills in the next legislative session that keep the Department of Corrections busy rounding up the troops to circle the wagons and watching each other watch each other. Keep them so busy on defense that the legislators on the committee will eventually come to the inevitable conclusion that the shroud of secrecy around the Department and its entities has to be pierced in order to drag Maine kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.

Are you watching?