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‘A failure of the system’: Over 700 people have died on probation in Maine since 2013

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‘A failure of the system’: Over 700 people have died on probation in Maine since 2013

Mar 04, 2024 | 6:25 am ET
By Evan Popp
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‘A failure of the system’: Over 700 people have died on probation in Maine since 2013
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Maine State Prison. (Evan Popp/Maine Morning Star)

Jan Collins keeps attending funerals. Again and again. 

For the assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and others connected with people in prison, the somber events have become far too common after someone reenters the community through the state’s probation system. 

Collins and other advocates wanted to know the extent of the issue. So they asked the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) for hard numbers. 

From 2013 through 2023, 713 people in Maine’s adult community corrections system died while on probation, according to data provided by the DOC via Freedom of Access Act requests from advocates and Maine Morning Star — an average of about 65 people a year. 

But the deaths haven’t been evenly distributed. A total of 37 people died while on probation in 2013, but that number rose to 63 in 2023. And while there has been some fluctuation, the trendline of deaths while on probation has largely crept upwards since 2013, reaching a high of 85 deaths in 2022. 

The deaths come as fatalities within Maine’s prisons and jails have also emerged as an area of concern.

National research has found that people who have been incarcerated generally have worse health outcomes than those who haven’t been imprisoned, including a higher rate of fatal opioid overdoses. And although many Mainers on probation —  a court-ordered period of community supervision — have never actually served time in a DOC facility, a Maryland-based study showed that even being arrested is associated with a high risk of death by overdose.  

In response to questions from Maine Morning Star, DOC director of government affairs Samuel Prawer said the department “provides a comprehensive set of release and reentry planning services” to help people succeed after getting out of custody. 

But given the vulnerability of those on probation and the number of people who have died since 2013, Collins said the state isn’t doing enough to assure the population’s safety. 

“The department is touting what a great job they’re doing with reentry. But if they’re doing such a great job, how come 85 died [in 2022] and there’s so many others who are suffering in multiple other ways?” Collins said. 

Reentry process contains many gaps

If Paul Joseph Schlosser III could go back in time, he would have preferred almost anything but probation — even if it meant serving longer behind bars.   

“Probation for me was horrible. It was almost a nonstarter,” he said. 

Schlosser, who is currently incarcerated in Maine State Prison, said the system set him up for failure from the start, as he was offered few services to help him get on his feet and stay away from substance use. 

The last time he got out of prison in April 2023, things initially seemed promising. A caseworker had set up a place for him to stay that provided housing for veterans. However, the day before he was released, his housing fell through and Schlosser said he was left without support. 

“I had nothing in place,” he said. “I had absolutely no one. … I had nowhere to go. It was just ‘good luck’ and that was it. It was just totally reckless. It was failure from day one.” 

Schlosser said he was able to use money he receives as a veteran to get a hotel. But as someone with a history of substance use, he found it difficult to get connected to services. And that made it impossible to stay sober, he said. 

Given his experience, Schlosser is not surprised more than 700 people died on probation in Maine from 2013-2023.  

“You kind of slip through the cracks,” he said. 

MacKenzie Kelley, project director of Reentry Sisters — which helps women in Maine coming out of incarceration — has also experienced problems with the system. Kelley struggled after she got out of prison in 2022 and was put on supervised community confinement, a reentry program in which the DOC releases certain people who meet specific criteria. 

Kelley said she did everything she could to better herself and prepare for reentry, including pursuing educational opportunities. But when she got out, she had a difficult time finding a job. 

The reentry system had improved since her first time out of prison in 2012, Kelley said. When she was released in 2022, Kelley was able to get coverage through MaineCare (the state’s Medicaid program) and access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But she noted that she was still released without employment or much money and into a state with a growing affordable housing crisis — all factors that made it difficult to thrive. 

The housing crisis is a huge barrier for those on probation and people reentering, Kelley said. She said she’s heard many reports of people leaving prison and becoming unhoused. 

“How can we expect these people who are unhoused to stay sober and do the right thing?” she said. 

DOC seeks to contextualize probation deaths

In response to questions from Maine Morning Star, Prawer from the DOC provided additional information about probation and the number of deaths since 2013. 

The department currently has 80 probation officers, he said, and DOC data shows probation was successful — meaning a person completed their community supervision sentence — about 75% of the time in 2023 compared to a little over 80% of instances in 2020. 

Last year, the total number of people on probation was 7,895, down from 9,522 in 2019, Prawer said. Before 2019, the department’s data system didn’t catalog the total annual number, so Prawer provided a “snapshot” of how many people were on probation on Dec. 31 of each year from 2013 to 2023; this ranged from a high of 6,799 in 2016 to a low of 5,371 in 2021.

Using 2022 as an example, Prawer pointed out that the mortality rate for the 7,597 probationers that year was approximately 1.15% — actually slightly lower than the mortality rate for the general Maine population in 2022 (about 1.25%). 

However, an analysis by Maine Morning Star found that the probation population skews younger than the general state population. In July of 2022, about 79% of people in adult community corrections in Maine were under the age of 50, notably higher than the 55% of the general Maine population under 50 in 2022. In addition, 30% of Maine’s general population was 60 and older in 2022 versus just 7% of probationers in July of that year. 

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to requests for information on the death rate for each age group in the state. However, death rates across the U.S. are higher among older age brackets. 

Prawer acknowledged the limitations of comparing probationers with the general population, saying it is difficult to provide a “meaningful picture of mortality rates” for either group “without all of the relevant data points and context.” 

DOC defends its reentry programs

Along with providing data, Prawer pointed to the DOC’s slate of reentry services, which include connecting people to rehabilitative programming and offering career and technical education initiatives meant to ensure residents “have the opportunity to gain both professional skills and life skills prior to release.”

Data shows that only a segment of those incarcerated have participated in that training, though. Among the 1,583 males who made up the average DOC population in 2023, 385 unique individuals completed cognitive behavior, skills building and domestic violence programming that year, 125 completed educational initiatives, and 185 different individuals completed vocational training, according to DOC metrics. The average DOC population for women that year was 173, and 44 unique individuals completed behavioral, skills and domestic violence programming, 25 individuals completed educational programming and 13 finished vocational training. 

When it comes to release, Prawer said case managers help connect residents with employment opportunities, health care and community services such as mental health and substance use treatment.

He added that people receiving medication assisted treatment (MAT) in prison for substance use disorder are given supplies to last them until they get an appointment in the community, which is supposed to be scheduled within seven days of reentry. Those on MAT without insurance can also access free care through a grant program, Prawer said.

The DOC also funds a 12-bed transitional housing facility in Bangor where people reentering can stay rent free for up to six months, although Collins said given the number of probationers, that doesn’t make “even a modest dent in the housing issue.”  

In addition, Prawer said the DOC “makes every effort” to ensure people released have an appointment with a primary care provider and provides supplies such as Narcan, fentanyl test strips, condoms, and hygiene and dental products to those leaving incarceration.

Bill to review Maine’s post-carceral reentry system advances to full legislature

Still, although Prawer said the department wants those on probation to be successful, he emphasized that probationers are not actually within the custody of the DOC. 

“While we take the health and well-being of our probation clients very seriously, the department does not directly monitor or manage the day-to-day life of probation clients,” he said.

Even so, Collins argued that DOC probation officers still hold a significant amount of power over those on probation through the enforcement of community supervision rules. 

‘They’re our family’ 

Although the DOC argues it provides comprehensive services for those reentering, Kelley also isn’t surprised that many hundreds of Mainers have died on probation since 2013. 

She knows some of them personally. 

Kelley estimated that eight women from her time in prison passed away during the reentry process between 2018 and 2022, including one person who died after just a week of community supervision. 

Each death was devastating, Kelley said. 

“They’re our family,” she said. “When you’re incarcerated, your biological family is gone. We become a family on the inside. Those are our sisters.” 

“It’s a failure of the system,” Kelley added. “Because really there should be people out there caring for them, helping them.” 

Marshall Mercer, executive director of the Maine-based recovery group Hope Brokers, also lost someone: his childhood friend, Michael Lagasse, who died on April 29, 2023, while on probation, according to DOC records. He was 40.  

Mercer, who is active in the push to reform Maine’s criminal legal system and drug laws, said Lagasse died of an overdose. 

‘A failure of the system’: Over 700 people have died on probation in Maine since 2013
Marshall Mercer at the Maine State House in 2021. (Evan Popp)

Mercer and Lagasse grew up in the same neighborhood and bonded in part over being some of the few Black kids in Auburn at the time, he said. 

“He had a big heart, man. He loved everybody,” Mercer said of Lagasse. “But when he was on the drugs it was different.” 

Lagasse’s death left a huge hole. “He was part of my team growing up,” Mercer said. 

Given those deaths and myriad others, people like Mercer, Kelley, Collins and Schlosser say the current probation system is not working. But Collins said incarceration itself often isn’t putting people in the best position to succeed when they get out, arguing that poor health care in prisons and jails makes people much more vulnerable when they reenter. 

Mercer, who has been incarcerated, agreed that imprisonment often doesn’t lead to positive outcomes.

“Prison doesn’t help anybody,” he said. “You just get stuck with your pain, with your substance abuse. Whatever mental things you’re going through, it gets suppressed.” 

Overdose epidemic likely plays a significant role

In their communication with the DOC, advocates requested information about how people on probation died. The department provided a list of names and directed advocates to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which determines causes of death. Collins said she has not yet received that information from the office.

While the effort to identify the primary drivers of probation deaths is ongoing, Collins and others believe Maine’s drug overdose epidemic — which claimed 607 lives in 2023 — is a significant factor in the fatalities. Winifred Tate, an associate anthropology professor and director of the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, thinks so too.  

“It would stand to reason that that’s something that’s an ongoing issue because we know that being arrested and/or incarcerated disrupts [substance use care] for the lucky people who are able to get it and does not provide care for the people who need it,” Tate said. 

Around 60% of people in the state’s prisons suffer from substance use disorder, the DOC estimated last year. And while Maine does have MAT services to help those with opioid addictions, Tate said addressing substance use within prison is inherently flawed because such care often fails to address the root causes of the problem. An important part of recovery, Tate said, is building relationships and community, which is difficult to do while incarcerated. She added that people in prison already often experience a deterioration in their relationships with those on the outside, another reason they are vulnerable upon reentry.  

Kelley agreed, explaining that the waning of a person’s drug tolerance while incarcerated combined with the shock of leaving a tightly-regulated environment can have disastrous consequences and lead to an overdose. 

“The next thing we know they’re on the floor,” she said. 

Addressing challenges to reentry 

While some are critical of the DOC’s reentry services, others are more complimentary. Dipper Castaldo, assistant executive director of the Maine Re-entry Network, believes the department does its best given limited resources and other challenges to connect people who need the most assistance to reintegration groups. He said the DOC has made positive strides in improving the reentry process in the last decade and is not letting anyone fail on purpose. 

However, Castaldo acknowledged that gaps remain. 

“Some people do slip through the cracks,” he said. “It is not unheard of to be given $50 in gate money, a bus ticket and to be told ‘good luck.’ We’re mostly better than that these days but we’re not where we want to be by any means.”

One challenge, Castaldo said, is that while people in prison are often eager to do reentry planning when they’re behind bars, they sometimes become less engaged after getting out. Castaldo believes that’s because they feel traumatized from prison and don’t want to speak to anyone who reminds them of that time. 

Castaldo said an additional barrier is the stigma formerly incarcerated people face, which can prevent them from accessing housing and employment. 

“People need to stop seeing the formerly incarcerated as scary,” he said. “Open dialogue and more interaction with each other is going to help heal those wounds.” 

Castaldo also believes the DOC needs more funding for reentry caseworkers. He noted that Maine Re-entry Network is supposed to meet with people nine months prior to release but typically only sees them three to five months before, an issue he attributed to a shortage of resources. 

Some people do slip through the cracks. It is not unheard of to be given $50 in gate money, a bus ticket and to be told ‘good luck.’ We’re mostly better than that these days but we’re not where we want to be by any means.

– Dipper Castaldo, assistant executive director of the Maine Re-entry Network

Lawmakers are looking to reform the system as well. A bill introduced by Rep. Dan Sayre (D-Kennebunk) would direct the DOC to review its reentry services in conjunction with community groups and other advocates to identify any gaps. The bill would also require the DOC to provide lawmakers with data about causes of death for people who die on probation. Sayre’s proposal was advanced by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in January and will soon be taken up by the full Legislature. 

That same committee also moved forward a bill to fund a temporary housing program for those coming out of prison and advanced a proposal that would direct the University of Maine System to conduct a thorough analysis of the DOC’s education, vocational, and rehabilitative and reentry services. 

Both of those bills are sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland). The latter measure, which has since been passed by the House, is meant to identify whether the DOC is doing enough to help people coming out of prison thrive in their communities, Talbot Ross said. 

As things stand now, Collins doesn’t believe the state is providing enough assistance. She argued the deck is stacked against those reentering society after incarceration.  

“It’s a miracle that anybody is successful,” she said.