WARREN, Maine — Inmate gangs that extort and intimidate other prisoners exist in every facility across the country, but Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said steps have been taken to control such violence at the Maine State Prison. And more changes are on the horizon.

Ponte agreed to a nearly hour-long interview recently at the Maine State Prison to discuss issues concerning violence at the maximum-security complex, references to which were made during testimony last month in the attempted murder trial of inmate Franklin Higgins.

Ponte, who was hired as corrections commissioner in 2011, said he has been at prisons that are much more violent, including a 3,000-bed facility in Arizona that included many California inmates and a very strong gang presence. He said there were many beatings and serious injuries at the Arizona facility.

“Here, there is more frequency of assaults, fights than in other facilities of the same size, but the harm to individuals seems to be less,” Ponte said.

During the Higgins’ trial last month, several prisoners testified about a gang called the Heavy Hitters that extorted money from other inmates, committed assaults and dictated which cells inmates could occupy.

Ponte said that those allegations were investigated by staff and that the issues raised during the Higgins trial focused on events that occurred nearly two years ago.

Higgins was acquitted of murder in connection with the beating death of fellow prisoner Lloyd Millet in May 2011. Higgins claimed self-defense, saying he was threatened and assaulted by Millett and other gang members within the prison. Other prisoners also recounted incidents of violence and intimidation by the gang of about a half-dozen prisoners that included Millett and Brad Chesnel.

Chesnel, who is serving a life sentence, remains at the state prison, but the department would not comment on whether he was still in the general population.

Those allegations were looked into, Ponte said, but often it is not easy to get enough evidence to take action.

“A lot of times, it’s difficult to link things back. We have due process requirements. We can’t just tap somebody on the shoulder and say, ‘I think you’re doing something wrong so I’m going to put you in seg [segregation] for the next three years,’” Ponte said.

Instead, the staff tries to filter through intelligence gathered from inmates to see what can be proved. He said prisoners also could be providing misinformation purposely because they have a grudge against someone or are trying to get rid of competition.

The leaders of a ring oftentimes will not get their hands directly involved in the wrongdoing, he added.

If the prison has reason to suspect a prisoner is running an extortion racket, administrators may limit where the prisoner can work, increase surveillance on that person, search his cell and check his telephone and money records. If an inmate is extorting others, he almost always will be getting paid in drugs or money, Ponte said.

There are some steps being taken to better handle investigations, the commissioner said.

Ponte said a change in a state law that took effect about a month ago allows the prison to go back and review a prisoner’s telephone calls within the past 30 days even if that inmate had not been suspected of illegal activity at the time of the telephone call.

All telephone calls have been and continue to be recorded, but unless that inmate was tagged, the prison previously could not go back and review a call once it had been concluded, he said.

The prison staff also needs to continually adjust to ways that prisoners will try to smuggle contraband into the facility, he said.

For instance, the commissioner said Suboxone strips have been hidden under the part of the envelope that seals. More recently, smaller strips of Suboxone have been hidden underneath multiple stamps posted on the envelopes that are sent to prisoners.

During court hearings in Knox County Superior Court, where prisoners are prosecuted for illegal activities within the prison, both the presiding judge and prosecutors have stated the threat of drug dealing within the facility.

“Drugs pose an extreme risk and an extreme danger in prison,” Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm said in early November as he sentenced a prisoner for drug trafficking.

Assistant Knox County District Attorney Christopher Fernald agreed.

“Drugs within a prison is like pouring gasoline on a fire,” Fernald said at the November hearing. He said the price of drugs within the prison is ridiculously high and prisoners go into debt, which can lead to violence.

About eight months ago, an inner perimeter team was created to look for criminal behavior within the prison, Ponte said. He said similar teams have been used at prisons where he has worked in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

This team is responsible for trying to prevent drugs coming into the prison and dealing with other possible criminal acts. He said if someone is caught with drugs, the team will go back and examine telephone calls for the past 30 days and also look at inmate money accounts to see where they have come from and where they has been going.

The Corrections Department also is purchasing equipment similar to what is used at airports to screen people and packages coming into the prison. He said the scanning equipment for people will use less radiation than those in airports. All visitors and staff will be required to go through the scanner.

He hoped the scanning equipment would be installed and in use within a few months.

Similar equipment already has been purchased for use on prisoners, he said, but the department was still determining the best location for it.

For prisoners to be involved in criminal activity within the prison they must generally have a job that gives them greater access to the prison than regular inmates, Ponte said. These jobs include the laundry, kitchen and maintenance areas, where inmates are better able to move contraband or communications, he said.

The new equipment will allow for physical screening of inmates, the commissioner said.

One security issue that was highlighted during the Higgins trial, Ponte acknowledged, was the lack of cameras to record what is going on in certain parts of the prison. He said there are too few cameras and that not all them have recording capabilities.

The department is going out to bid to increase the number of cameras and seeking ones that record, Ponte said.

Ponte also discussed staff turnover and overtime problems within the prison and indicated that when he was hired his goals were to reduce both.

“We’ve achieved the reduction in overtime but we have not done well in the reduction of turnover,” the commissioner said.

He said the lack of pay raises for four years had contributed to the turnover problem, and the prospects of that changing anytime soon are not good since the state does not have the money.

The starting pay for a corrections officer is $13.57 per hour. The maximum base pay is $17.63 per hour. There are also pay differentials for employees working in the evening, overnight or on weekends. Those differentials range from 35 cents to 75 cents per hour.

It also is more difficult to recruit workers for the state prison than for the Maine Correctional Center in Windham because the employment pool is smaller in the midcoast area and staff must travel greater distances.

But the prison is safe, even with the reduction in overtime, he maintained.

“We sat down with facility staff at each site. We had union people there, supervisors, and we went through every post to see what was needed,” Ponte said.

Overtime peaked in November 2010 at $94,530 for a two-week period. The overtime costs have fallen generally to between $20,000 and $40,000 per pay periods in the past two years.

There are 175 corrections officers on the payroll and slightly more than 800 inmates at the Maine State Prison.

“I believe there is adequate staffing,” Ponte said.

One problem, however, is that some people miss work too frequently.

“It’s become a culture, I think an entitlement. They feel that ‘these are my days and I’m going to use them,’” Ponte said.

He said that in the private sector, a person uses an average of two to three sick days a year. At the prison, however, the average number of sick days taken by employees is between 10 and 15 per year. Ponte said that even at other prisons where he has worked and where there is much more violence, there are fewer sick days used by staff.

That said, Ponte stressed, “This a very dangerous, difficult job. The staff does a great job under difficult conditions. It’s not easy being an officer in a cellblock with 64 criminals.”

He cited an incident about six weeks ago in which two inmates stabbed another prisoner. He said a guard stepped between the victim and the two attackers and was able to handcuff the pair and disarm them on his own.

“Those are the situations that any staff member can be subject to in a second,” Ponte said.

He said better management can lead to the need for less overtime and staff.

He noted that when he arrived in the department, there were 64 inmates in a protective custody unit inside the state prison with others on a waiting list for that protection. He said that required more staff because a staff member had to be with each prisoner whenever that person went somewhere within the prison.

The number of prisoners in protective custody since has been whittled down to between eight and 10 by doing a better job of determining why protective custody was requested and whether it was needed. He said some prisoners were in protective custody simply because they said some other prisoner had looked at them in the wrong way.

Also, protective custody prisoners are now housed at the Maine Correctional Center.

Ponte said simply adding more staff will not make the prison safer but that having the right number of officers and better identifying problem inmates are the keys to having the prison run as safely as possible.