Despite two killings in the last year at the Maine State Prison, including one last week in which an inmate allegedly stabbed another 87 times, the state corrections commissioner said Friday that Maine’s correctional facilities are safer now than they have ever been.

Advocates for prisoners and the union representing corrections officers said that’s not true.

Commissioner Joseph Ponte said the staffing in the unit where the killing occurred on Feb. 28 – when one officer was overseeing about 80 inmates – is “a good ratio,” on par with national standards. He said no prison superintendent can guarantee that a deadly attack won’t happen, and having more guards would not have prevented the killing.

“The state prison is, for sure, safer today than it was three to four years ago,” Ponte said at a news conference at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

Judy Garvey, a member of the board of directors for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, challenged Ponte’s statement. She said new control techniques and reductions in programming and privileges have made the prisons less safe. Also, she said, many inmates previously lived alone in their cells, but now inmates are being forced to double-bunk, which is raising anxiety.

The coalition “doesn’t believe the prison is safe,” she said, “as evidenced by the increase in homicides and by the fear prisoners are expressing when they write to us.”

Ponte gave no numbers to show that Maine’s prisons are safer. The Portland Press Herald has requested data on staffing levels in the prisons, and on incidents of inmate assaults, under the state’s Freedom of Access Act but has received only partial information from a limited number of years.

Ponte said his department’s method for collecting data on the number of assaults is too new to accurately compare current numbers with years past. In 2011, the department began investigating all injuries as possible assaults and keeping a computerized database to track its findings. In years past, the department tracked only incidents reported by inmates or guards as assaults, he said.

Data provided late Friday documented 205 fights between inmates in 2012 at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and the Maine State Prison in Warren. When the department started entering the information electronically in 2013, the total for the year climbed to 281.

The data shows 50 fights and assaults in the two facilities so far in 2014.

Ponte said the new system requires each incident to be investigated to determine why it happened and what could have been done to prevent it. Administrators must explain any increase in fights, grievances or discipline at their facilities.

The system has led to changes such as stationing an officer in hallways when inmates go to and from meals, reintroducing drug-sniffing dogs and creating a standard response to an officer’s emergency call.

Ponte said a search of the state prison after last week’s killing turned up few weapons.

“When you find a lot of violence, you find inmates will arm themselves because they’re afraid,” he said. “We’re not finding a lot of weapons.”

Ponte would not comment specifically about the killing, saying it remains under investigation.

JUVENILE ASSAULT ON THE RISE

State police say Richard Stahursky, 35, beat and tied up Micah Boland, 37, in his cell, then used two makeshift knives to repeatedly stab Boland without drawing guards’ attention. The first indication to authorities that Stahursky had attacked Boland came when Stahursky went to a corrections officer with the bloody knives still in his hands and dropped them on her desk when ordered.

During his 12 years in the state prison system, Stahursky had committed multiple assaults against other inmates, and assaulted a corrections officer.

Ponte, who took office in 2011 as a member of Gov. Paul LePage’s Cabinet, spoke to the press Friday at the Long Creek juvenile detention facility to answer questions about the killing, and about a recent escape attempt in which three teenagers are accused of organizing a breakout from their locked rooms at Long Creek just after midnight on Feb. 14.

The three allegedly attacked an adult staff worker and briefly escaped as far as the facility’s fenced recreation yard.

Ponte acknowledged that the number of assaults at Long Creek has been on the rise recently, but he offered no specific numbers.

In response to one of the Press Herald’s public records requests, the department has said only that Long Creek has had 188 assaults since 2007. It has not disclosed the numbers year to year.

The facility has cut its number of uniformed juvenile program workers from 85 in 2008 to 76 now, said Associate Corrections Commissioner Jody Breton. About 100 youths are at Long Creek, where both boys and girls can be detained until they are 21 for juvenile offenses. The facility has capacity for 163, according to the department’s website.

On Feb. 14, Justin Barry, 18, and two juveniles, ages 17 and 16, asked to be buzzed out of their rooms in intervals, one to get a book, another for a snack and another to get a drink of water. When they returned to their rooms, each one kept their door open either by using a playing card to jam the lock or by not completely closing the door, according to a report filed in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

When a juvenile program worker, Adrien Dufresne, went to check on them, the three allegedly flung their doors open in a coordinated attack, punching and kicking Dufresne until he was dazed and bleeding. They then locked him in a cell, according to the report by Department of Corrections investigator Joseph Fagone.

The youths then used Dufresne’s radio to brag about what they had done, pulled a fire alarm and made a brief escape, trying to use tied-together bedsheets to climb the recreation yard’s fence, the report says.

SAFETY CLAIMS DON’T ADD UP

Jim Mackie, staff representative for the corrections officers’ union, said the incidents are evidence of a growing problem. In addition to last week’s homicide and the attack at Long Creek, a state prison inmate fatally beat another with a guitar in June.

“How can you stand there and try to convince the public that somebody just got cut to ribbons and that place is still a safe place?” Mackie said. “You can’t have these horrific incidences and stand there and say it’s safer now than it ever was. It doesn’t add up.”

In response to the latest violence, the union has asked that each officer be provided with a vest to protect their torso from a knife or other weapon.

Ponte said he is willing to discuss the safety equipment but the vests are not commonly used except in some high-risk areas, in part because they are uncomfortable.

Corrections consultants backed up Ponte’s assertion that a single officer is enough to manage 80 inmates, as long as a facility is built with adequate sight lines.

“In the prison setting, it’s not unusual to have 100 or more low-security inmates, while the number of beds for higher-security inmates is less,” said Rod Miller, a Virginia-based consultant who has worked extensively with Maine jails and those elsewhere in the country.

The Department of Corrections has not characterized the level of security where Stahurksy and Boland were housed, though the Maine State Prison is a medium- and maximum-security facility.

“It is not unusual to have one officer. That is how it’s designed,” said Allen Beck of Justice Concepts Inc. in Kansas City, referring to the direct supervision approach to corrections.

Direct supervision, which entails a single officer interacting with inmates in a pod, has been found to reduce the number of violent incidents, he said. “You could probably run 60 to 80 inmates OK. That depends on the (prison) design.”

Beck said it can be very difficult to compare the number of violent incidents from one year to the next if reporting systems change.

At Friday’s news conference, Ponte bristled at the suggestion that his department is not punitive enough on juvenile offenders who misbehave while in custody.

“We believe people can change,” he said. “We invest a lot of time in our kids. We can make them better and make communities better by putting them out in better condition than they came in.”

The same rationale applies in trying to curb extended use of segregation for discipline, he said. Inmates are still segregated, he said, but supervisors must notify the commissioner’s office if an inmate is to spend more than 72 hours in isolation.

“Somebody we release from segregation in shackles, tomorrow he’s your neighbor,” Ponte said, explaining the need to modify behavior, not just lock up prisoners.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

hench@pressherald.com

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan