State prison warden Randall Liberty gives a talk at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport on June 20. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JESSICA PIPER

Investing in inmates helps communities, state prison warden says

BUCKSPORT — It costs $42,000 to house an inmate in the Maine State Prison for a year. But if that money is well-spent, with a focus on rehabilitation, communities can begin to break the cycle of crime and incarceration, state prison warden Randall Liberty said in a talk at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport on June 20.

“You cannot incarcerate your way out of addiction, mental health issues, domestic issues,” Liberty said. “You can’t.”

The United States, he noted, imprisons people at a higher rate than any other developed country. While Maine’s incarceration rate is among the lowest of any state, there are still roughly 2,400 individuals in the state prison system on any day, and another 1,700 in county jails.

When Liberty became warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren three years ago, it housed 850 inmates. Earlier this month, that figure hit 1,037, a new high.

“A lot of prisons are bursting at the seams,” he said.

Substance abuse — most recently, the opioid epidemic — is a key driver of incarceration in Maine, as are mental health challenges, learning disabilities, poverty and neglect, Liberty noted. If these issues are not addressed, inmates are likely to reoffend upon release.

“They are going to get out, and the question is, are they better off when they leave than when they arrived?” he said. “If they’re the same old broken person that I disrespected, locked in a cage for 10 years, fed inadequate food, no fresh air, no opportunities, no hope, abandoned by the community, what do you think you’re going to get?”

Helping incarcerated veterans is of particular importance to Liberty. An Army veteran himself, he embedded with the Iraqi infantry in Fallujah in 2004.

“I came back from Iraq different,” he said.

He got help for post-traumatic stress disorder, and wants other veterans to have the same support. At the state prison, he created a “veterans pod,” where over 50 military veterans can share their experiences with one another, and receive help from outside organizations more efficiently. Liberty had previously started a similar program at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility, where he served as the county’s elected sheriff for nine years.

Other pods at the Maine State Prison focus on sobriety, education and vocational training. In the past nine years, 92 inmates have graduated from the University of Maine-Augusta.

“We have never had a college student come back to prison,” the warden said.

Vocational opportunities include yoga instruction, woodworking and gardening programs, all of which can provide certifications that improve inmates’ job chances upon release.

To avoid burdening taxpayers, Liberty emphasized the importance of “low-cost, no-cost” strategies. For example, a garden program at the state prison — where inmates plant, harvest and eventually eat their own fresh vegetables — saves money by using post-retail seedlings.

Other programs rely on volunteers and private philanthropy.

Liberty recalled the first time he visited prison. It was 1971, and he was there to see his father, who was serving time for burglary. He credited positive male role models, including teachers and coaches, for helping him and his brothers avoid the same path.

“We broke the cycle,” he said. “So if I could pass that on to some of these guys, and find a way to break the cycle, it makes sense for all of us.”

Liberty’s talk was part of the Wednesday on Main series, hosted by the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Events take place in downtown Bucksport at 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday, all summer long.

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