Maine, the state with the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, appears to be losing to suspicious death a disproportionate number of prisoners from within its segregation facilities. This seems somewhat odd in view of the concerted effort that the Maine Department of Corrections undertook over the past month to defend itself against legislative bill LD1611, an initiative intended to put reasonable restraints on the use and abuse of segregation within Maine’s prisons.

Under the time-worn idiom of circling the wagons, the department pulled out all the stops in opposing the bill, succeeding in reducing it down to a resolve to study itself. A highly respected official at Maine State Prison broke down sobbing at the hearing, accusing the sponsors of the bill of insulting the good people in corrections, insisting that he had never used Mace on anyone.

Not only did the department call on scores of employees to testify against the bill, they corralled numerous others to wear protest stickers and lobby in the halls of the State House, an uncomfortable picture of the activities of our state employees.

Yet three people have died within the past year either within segregation or barely out of segregation. First, Sheldon Weinstein — Jewish, brilliant, wheelchair bound and a dropout from Boston University Medical School — died of a ruptured spleen on April 24, 2009, within about two hours after I requested that he be given toilet paper. His death is reported to have been the result of an assault received four days earlier. Then Victor Valdez, segregated under suspicious circumstances, was rushed from segregation to the infirmary at Maine State Prison and was reported to have died there. Now comes the case of George Magee at the Androscoggin County Jail, who hanged himself in a segregation cell. He was placed there under observation for refusing his medicine. Yet he is reported to have hanged himself with pieces of ripped bed sheets.

What is going on here? If you are not safe in segregation, where can you be safe within a prison?

Two of these prisoners — Weinstein and Magee — were convicted sex offenders.

Let me share with you what I believe is going on here.

As a chaplain, I became instrumental in breaking up a loosely held gang in the Medium Custody Unit at Maine State Prison that called itself the “Rat and Skinner Patrol.” “Skinner” is the pejorative term for a sex offender, commonly beaten within the prison, while “rat” is the term for a beaten prisoner who informs on who beat him (or a chaplain who tells what is going on there). Traditionally, beaten “skinners” were placed in segregation for interminable periods of time, while the perpetrators, if caught, were put into the “hole” for 5 to 10 days.

During the last legislative session, the Department of Corrections successfully lobbied to place the 15 county jails (or corrections institutions) under its limited jurisdiction in order to institute uniform compliance with accepted corrections standards. This jurisdiction was placed under the authority of the distinguished Board of Corrections, itself under the intense scrutiny and able assistance of the department. One is reminded of the Dutch legend of Hans Brinker, who put his finger in a dike to prevent a flood, only to place himself in grave peril.

The Department of Corrections has a favorite phrase to deflect criticism: “We are operating within nationally accepted standards.” In talking with my brother in Rhode Island, however, a psychologist with a counseling practice to sex offenders in the Rhode Island and Massachusetts prison systems, he had not known of one case of a sex offender beating over the past 20 or more years of his practice. Yet the bias against sex offenders within the guard culture in the prison and jail system in Maine is notorious. Accepted practice in Maine for all too many guards is to look the other way or even to tacitly promote abuse of certain prisoners under their protection.

That is the systemic cultural miasma that the department is desperately trying to fix before it gets out of control. I have news for these good people. It may already be out of control. Transparency and accountability are the two accepted standards that will repair the damage, albeit not for Sheldon Weinstein, Victor Valdez and George Magee or those who professed to have loved them.