Maine State Prison offers education to inmates in the name of public safety

At the maximum-security facility in Warren, 685 men are currently incarcerated; 40 of them were...
At the maximum-security facility in Warren, 685 men are currently incarcerated; 40 of them were enrolled this winter and spring in college classes.(WMTW)
Published: May. 23, 2022 at 8:38 AM EDT
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WARREN, Maine (WMTW) - Ask Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty why he offers inmates convicted of violent crimes and serving the longest sentences free high school and college education, and he will explain his philosophy of rehabilitation to reduce crime.

“I believe our job is to redeem and to reform and to release them better than when they arrived,” Liberty said in a recent interview during WMTW’s visit inside the prison.

Education – high school and college classes –are part of the programming offered to the inmates Liberty calls “residents.”

At the maximum-security facility in Warren, 685 men are currently incarcerated; 40 of them were enrolled this winter and spring in college classes taught primarily by University of Maine faculty for credits toward undergraduate degrees, and for a few, graduate degrees.

“We recognize people are here for mental health issues, substance abuse disorder, trauma, neglect, poverty -- those are really the reasons why people are here and really lead them to the decisions they make sometimes,” Liberty said. “So, the question for all of us really, ‘Are they better when they are released than when they arrived?’ And we find that, really, it’s not our job to punish, but our job is to help them identify what brought them here and help them get to work programming, educating, and doing that sort of thing, allowing them some redemption.”

Kate Getz, a former special-ed teacher in Portland public schools, has overseen the prison college program for the past three years.

Getz said, “I’ve seen them grow a lot, even when they start their very first class until they graduate. There’s so much growth just academically and personally.”

Just like students outside prison. Dozens of inmates are on a waiting list to enroll.

Getz said, “These students will get out, and they will have to rejoin society, and I don’t want them to be set up to fail.”

Chris Laliberde, who studied for one year at UMaine before dropping out, now 26 and serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated assault, said the classes let him engage in normal behavior while incarcerated and prepare for life after prison.

Laliberde said, “There are a lot of jobs that would otherwise be closed to us without that degree, and we’re already talking about a restriction by being felons.”

When he is released, in his early-to-mid-30s, he said, doesn’t want everyone to look at him like a criminal.

Laliberde said, “Not look at us like that but look at as people who made mistakes and are willing to do something to become better citizens, because ultimately most of us are getting out someday, and it’s paramount that we do things to change our behavior so that we don’t come back and don’t continue to be a burden on society.”

The prison college program was launched with a $2 million grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation run by Doris Buffett – the older sister of multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffett who had a home in Rockport, Maine, until her death in 2020.

Inmates are also eligible for federally funded “second chance” Pell Grants to cover tuition, or their families can foot the bill.

Liberty says education is the number one factor in preventing inmates who are released from committing crimes again.

More than 100 inmates have graduated college on his watch, and only 5% have been arrested again, compared to what he said is a national recidivism rate of 65%.

Liberty said, “That significant reduction on recidivism means less victims in the community and safer communities once they’re released.”

Liberty said his prison education programs don’t raise the costs of incarceration but warned that refusing to offer such programs -- going all in on punishment -- doesn’t help society in the long run.

Liberty said, “I would argue, if you warehouse residents, that’s where the real cost is. Being tough on crime is really being stupid on crime. If you incarcerate individuals and provide programming while they’re in, they don’t come back at higher rates.”

The prison offers jobs for all inmates, including its industries program, employing more than 100 inmates, manufacturing furniture and other products sold in a store.

Maine State Prison Warden Matt Magnusson echoed Liberty’s point of view.

“My day would be easier if we just warehoused people, but at the end of the day we’re not creating safer communities,” Magnusson said. “We want to give them the opportunity, so they’re no new victims, so they aren’t committing new crimes.”

Laliberde, attending prison classes two hours a day, four days a week, maintains a 4.0 grade point average and sees promise in his future.

“A college degree – it’s not a magical fix, but it is certainly a tool in the tool bag, along with some other resources,” Laliberde said, “Nobody wants anyone to get out prison and have them being menaces again.”

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