AUGUSTA — Maine State Prison Warden Randall Liberty spent 90 minutes talking about several innovative programs, including inmate gardening, he has developed throughout his law enforcement career during a presentation Wednesday at the University of Maine at Augusta.

The free talk was part of a new speaker series hosted by the school’s Justice Studies Department.

Liberty was named warden in September 2015 after being the Kennebec County Sheriff for seven years. He is an Army veteran and UMA graduate. Liberty has worked in law enforcement for 33 years.

“I believe in redemption and that all can be redeemed, and that’s an important belief as I manage the Maine State Prison,” Liberty said. “I believe we’re placed in positions of authority to make a difference.”

In addition to the 4 acres of gardens tended by inmates, Liberty has created pods, including one for veterans, at the prison in Warren. The veteran pods match inmates who have served with caseworkers and guards who are also veterans. Other pods are set to open soon, and there’s a new beekeeping program inmates are excited about, Liberty said.

Liberty told the audience of about 50 people that he got a different perspective on incarceration, especially among veterans, after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. He said if you can help the individuals who are incarcerated get to the root of the cause of why they’re in jail, it is easier to help them.

“We’ve made some good strides,” Liberty said. “It’s a big operation, and there are some serious challenges that result from the individuals are there.”

On any given day, an average of 2,300 people are incarcerated by the Maine Department of Corrections, and another 1,700 people are under the control of the 15 county jails around the state. A lot of people are in jail for substance-abuse-related crimes, and Liberty said the law enforcement community has started to realize the value of rehabilitation.

“I used to believe the solution to the drug problem was to kick in doors and bring people to jail,” he said. “Law enforcement sees that rehabilitation is a way to have success.”

Liberty listed five reasons Mainers are incarcerated: substance abuse, mental health challenges, learning disabilities, poverty and neglect. The United States is the largest incarcerator of any NATO nation, Liberty said, but Maine has the lowest incarceration rate in the country.

He said the correctional system is finding ways to divert people from prisons, but for those who are incarcerated, the system is figuring out what practices are best for rehabilitating the inmates and preparing them for their eventual release.

Education within the prison walls is important, Liberty said. About 300 inmates at the state prison haven’t graduated high school, so their job options would be limited upon release without any additional education. For those in solitary confinement — currently 11 inmates — Liberty said the prison has started allowing them five hours a day outside their cell.

Some inmates are now certified yoga instructors who spend time teaching and practicing yoga with other inmates, and Liberty said it’s had an effect.

“It keeps their minds busy and they keep active,” he said. “It’s made a big difference.”

It costs about $42,000 per year to house an inmate at the Maine State Prison. Liberty wants to be transparent about what taxpayers are getting for their money, so he invited anyone to come to Warren for a tour of the facility. He said he’d spend about 70 minutes taking guests around, and they’d mingle with inmates and see the prison in action.

“I’m supposed to take an individual who (has) committed a crime and change their behavior and modify their thinking,” he said.

The keys to success at the prison, Liberty said, are strong partnerships with community stakeholders, innovative implementation of best practices, a clear path to success for offenders and unity of vision. The inmates must have a reasonable lifestyle and a path to success within their prison community, he said.

The prison’s education pod will open soon and will include 64 inmates involved in educational pursuits. There will be college students, graduates-turned-paid-tutors and other educators. There will also be a laptop station and other resources for the inmates, and Liberty said it will be an environment that values learning.

In January, Liberty said, a recovery pod will open with inmates serious about recovering from substance addiction. There will be peer recovery group sessions, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and it will be an environment free of the things that would get in the way of someone trying to overcome an addiction.

Liberty’s talk was the third of UMA’s speaker series, which will continue with three more discussions early next year. Richard Lumb, a nationally-recognized expert on personal resilience, spoke in September, and October’s event included Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason and Kennebec and Somerset counties District Attorney Maeghan Maloney discussing the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court.

A news release said presentations and discussions on the opioid crisis, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and navigating veterans’ programs and benefits are scheduled for next year.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ