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Language matters: How the Maine Department of Corrections is working to de-stigmatize being incarcerated

The Maine Department of Corrections is working to normalize what being in prison means and better prepare residents for if and when they are released.

WINDHAM, Maine — What should we call convicted criminals living in prison? Prisoners? Inmates? How about residents?

The Maine Department of Corrections is working to change the narrative and de-stigmatize being incarcerated.

The idea is that former inmates, or residents, will find it easier to transition back into the community when they are released from prison.

According to the Journal of Social and Development Sciences, when people get out of prison, they face discrimination and have a harder time finding work, getting housing, or enrolling in education programs.

Obstacle after obstacle often finds people re-offending, sending them back to prison.

The Maine DOC wants to change that, and that goal aligns with where Gov. Janet Mills is moving on opioid convictions.

"I think it's really an extension of the work of Gov. Mills,” MDOC Deputy Commissioner Dr. Ryan Thornell said. “So, when Gov. Mills came into office, her first priority was to provide services to those who need services through Medicaid expansion but also through her opioid response. The Department of Corrections was a significant stakeholder in the opioid response plan and a piece of that is changing how we view substance use and the need for treatment."

Thornell said it's not just substance abuse treatment that needs to be normalized, but also people who are incarcerated. That’s why the DOC has started referring to people in prison as residents rather than inmates or prisoners.

Full interview with MDOC Deputy Commissioner Dr. Ryan Thornell

Prison residents are also receiving better treatment and being given more freedom. The idea is to better prepare convicted felons to re-enter society.

Inmates, or residents, say the changes make them feel more human.

"It's affected me personally,” said Patrick Dapolito. “It's almost like a weight being lifted off my shoulder.”

Dapolito is serving a 55-year sentence after being convicted of the murder of his wife, Kelly Winslow-Dapolito, in their Limington home in 2010.

"It's almost a transition from the prison environment, where you spend more of your time with the basic needs, to now being able to focus more on programing, education,” Dapolito said. “I'm actively involved in education. It's been an incredible change.”

While these programs and efforts at normalization have been positive for residents of the prison, there are people who don't agree with the efforts to de-stigmatize.

"I'm more concerned about the effect that all this conversation and change has on the worst offenders. Not residents, offenders," Arthur Jette, chapter leader of the Maine Chapter of the Parents of Murdered Children, said.

Jette will never shake the pain and memory of his grandson’s murder.

Full interview with  Maine Chapter of the Parents of Murdered Children's Arthur Jette

Trevon Jacob Cunningham was just a toddler in 1999 when he was killed alongside his 20-year-old babysitter, Mindy Gould. The court ruled that Gould's ex-boyfriend, Jeffery Cookson, killed them both.

"At that point in time, you know, the whole process of my life changed as well as that of all the members of my family," Jette said.

Jette said he doesn't think these normalization efforts are a good idea.

"The way we are minimizing somebody's status by referring to them as a resident rather than a prisoner is just another example of how we're using language to make their wrongs feel not so bad," he said.

The MDOC says their normalization efforts go beyond language to include treating residents better and giving them more freedom.

The dorms now feature softer surfaces like wooden beds instead of metal bunk beds, or rugs for the floor. Residents are now allowed to use the bathrooms during a stretch of time rather than at a specific time. And now the dorms have coffee pots, microwaves, and hot plates so prison residents can make their own meals if they want. None of this has ever been allowed before.

"It's not to make it more comfortable, it's so that when they're here they can transition much easier to the outside," Penny Bailey, who works in the dorms at the Maine Correctional Center, said.

Richard Leppanen is one of those residents getting ready to transition out of the prison. He has served 12 years and is just months away from his release. Leppanen said this program has helped him prepare for that.

"It works well because it's a great transition to get me out of that mindset of being what we classify as a prisoner or an inmate and being called a resident,” he said. “It makes me feel a little more human.”

Maine isn't the first state making these changes. In 2015, the director of the North Dakota Dept. of Corrections visited Norway, where she learned that the rate of re-offending there is much lower than here in the U.S.

When Norway releases a prison resident into society, there is a 20% chance he or she will re-offend. In the U.S. that rate is 76%. For that reason alone, Maine is looking at Norway and North Dakota as it creates changes – but is also focusing on ensuring the changes work in Maine.

"What we really are trying to do is create a positive culture and show people how to be respectful citizens inside, in hopes that when they learn those skills, they'll be good citizens when they get out," Maine Correctional Center Warden Scott Landry said.

But Landry said that MDOC officials expect something in return for the added opportunities.

"They want fulfillment, they want less chaos, they want a supportive environment, and if we can provide that, we do expect something in return,” he said. “We expect them to participate and contribute to a positive social dynamic in the unit that's beneficial for everyone. Then it's less traumatizing for them, it's less negative for the staff who work here, and we'll get better outcomes as a result."

The MDOC has only been working on this normalization for about 18 months, but Landry, Bailey, and residents at the Maine Correctional Center said the changes have already created more of a community in the dorms.

Penney Bailey said there have been fewer physical fights in the dorms because now the residents are able to talk things out instead of turning to violence.

"Our goal in the DOC, our responsibility, is not to judge them,” Thornell said. “It's really to have them in our care and custody and we view our primary responsibility to return them to the community in a healthier fashion, so our Maine communities are stronger.”

These changes may be helpful for the prison's residents, but Jette said it's not fair to victims who will never get the opportunity to be treated fairly again.

"People are changed forever by the actions of those who create crimes against them or in the case of murder victims their survivors their family members who never rest easily again," he said.

Bailey said it's easier for prison residents to do 30 or 40 days in solitary confinement than to sit and talk about the reason they’re in here.

But those discussions are now taking place at Maine Correctional Center. Prison residents agree, saying these changes have actually been harder for them in one very important way: it has forced them to learn how to handle conflict and how to perceive their own crimes. They are being challenged to talk it through and change themselves, instead of just doing time, and DOC officials say they want to continue to have these discussions to continue to de-stigmatize what being incarcerated means.

Full interview with Maine Correctional Center Warden Scott Landry.