Families, advocates demand accountability after string of deaths in Maine prisons and jails

Family members and advocates rallied over the weekend in Augusta to remember the 15 people who have died in Maine prisons and jails this year and to demand accountability and action from state officials to prevent future tragedies. 

Advocates pointed out that over 100 people have died in state carceral facilities over the past decade. That includes 10 in 2021 and the 15 so far in 2022. In just the past four months alone, 10 incarcerated people have passed away, with the causes ranging from drug overdoses to suicides, according to a press release sent out after the event.

Those remembered and honored at the rally included Michael Hansen, who died at Cumberland County Jail in May; Billy Tucker, who died at Cumberland County Jail in June; Nicole Turner, who died at York County Jail in July; Kevin Whitford; who died at Cumberland County Jail in July; Alexander Lewis, who died at Maine Correctional Center in July; James Mannion, who died at Cumberland County Jail in August; and David Bileau, who died at Maine State Prison in August. 

The deaths were preventable and stemmed from unmet medical needs, participants at the rally argued, citing the significant number of people in prisons who have substance use disorder. 

Those who spoke at the event called for increased accountability and transparency within the state’s carceral systems to stem the tide of deaths. 

“My son Dante needed serious mental health treatment,” said Rosanna Natalini, one such speaker. “Instead he was mistreated by the justice system and the state failed him. My son took his life while in the custody of the Cumberland County Jail where he pleaded for help but was ignored. We must build up strong community treatment options so that no mother has to go through what I’ve been through.” 

“The justice system failed to keep our loved ones safe and failed to provide justice,” added Jan Collins of the group Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “Our loved ones deserved better. We deserved better. Until there is accountability from these systems, we cannot rest.”

A sign at the rally over the weekend | Courtesy Marion Anderson

Advocates at the rally argued that the rise in prison and jail deaths is related to decades of policy decisions in Maine that have resulted in a defunding of social safety net and health care programs and increased funding for carceral responses to societal issues. As a 2022 report from the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the ACLU of Maine spelled out, state and local spending on corrections increased by 13% from 2014 to 2019, with spending on law enforcement rising by 14% in those years. But over that same time period, resources for substance use treatment through the MaineCare system increased by just 2% when adjusting for inflation. 

Doubling down on punishment is the wrong approach to dealing with substance use issues — which are leading to hundreds upon hundreds of deaths each year in the state — said Doug Dunbar of No Penobscot County Jail Expansion.  

“Jailing individuals who suffer from mental illness or substance use disorders is unwise, inhumane and counter-productive,” he said. “It consistently does harm to those we incarcerate, to their families and to our communities. People who are ill need to be treated by caring professionals in the community.” 

Despite that, Dunbar noted that officials in Penobscot County are planning to ask taxpayers for funds to expand the county jail in Bangor, which he called “an incredibly thoughtless proposal.” 

Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Democrat from Hallowell, also urged elected leaders to accept that the state’s current approach isn’t working. 

“The War on Drugs is killing Mainers,” Warren said. “Arresting and punishing people has never worked long-term to make people stop using drugs, and it is an increasingly deadly practice. We must decriminalize possession of drugs and provide better pathways to treatment so that we don’t lose one more brother, sister, neighbor or friend.”

“Something has got to be done,” Charity Tucker, the grandmother of Billy Tucker — who died in withdrawal at the Cumberland County Jail in June  — added. “We’re losing loved ones that don’t have to be lost if they could get the right treatment. We’re fighting to keep our children and grandchildren safe and out of state custody so they can stay alive. Our family alone has seen firsthand how the system fails our children again and again.”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Beacon.  

Top photo: Participants at the rally hold up signs | Courtesy Marion Anderson 

About Evan Popp

Avatar photoEvan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at evan(at)mainebeacon.com.

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