“I’ve got about 30 seconds for you,” Joseph Fitzpatrick, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said into the phone.

I put down the cheese sandwich I was eating and sat up straight.

There was a lot I could have asked the man at the helm of Maine’s third most expensive state agency.

Three months prior, a watchdog group reported that staff members at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland were failing to protect young inmates with mental illness. A month after that, Fitzpatrick put the administrator of Long Creek on leave without explanation. And I didn’t know it at the time, but the following week Gov. Paul LePage would take steps to close the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, even after the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee had unanimously voted to recommend funding the prison for another two years.

But in my 30 seconds, I most wanted to learn about the citizen oversight boards that, by law, are required to inspect and monitor Maine’s prisons. These mysterious boards are supposed to be a conduit between the prisons and the public, so regular people can understand what happens inside some of the state’s most closed institutions at a time when the department overseeing the correctional system appears to be turning inward.

My colleague, Bangor Daily News reporter Jake Bleiberg, had learned these boards existed while reporting on the aftermath of the suicide of a transgender teenager at Long Creek last October. Through the 2016 annual report of Long Creek’s board, he learned that another young person had also tried to commit suicide, strangling herself before being rushed to the hospital, where she survived.

If not for the board’s report, Jake — and the public — would not have known about this second suicide attempt nor the pattern of self-harm among youth at the facility who, the report said, “do not receive the depth of mental health interventions and medical treatment that they require.”

It made Jake curious about the other prison boards. The law says there should be one board for each correctional facility. Are there actually that many? Who serves on them? Where were the other boards’ annual reports, and what did they reveal? Jake started asking these questions in February.

For months, he didn’t get satisfactory answers. For example, he asked the department, the Legislature’s criminal justice committee clerk, lawmakers on the committee, and the state’s law library for annual reports that these boards are supposed to submit. Out of the 50 that should have been produced and made available to the public over the last decade, Jake was able to obtain just eight.

So in May I joined Jake. Maybe two people acting together could get somewhere, we thought.

I was to quickly learn that the commissioner was the only person within the department who had been given the authority to speak to us — or not.

“If you asked me if an ant crossed the street over here I couldn’t confirm or deny it,” the person who answered the phone at the Downeast prison told me when I asked her if the prison had a board and, if so, who was on it. “You’ll have to ask the commissioner,” she said, referring to Fitzpatrick.

Every employee of the department I tried to speak with — from secretaries to prison wardens to associate commissioners — gave a version of the same response to any question: “Ask the commissioner.” Even the commissioner’s administrative assistant wouldn’t share the names of all of the board members or their contact information with me.

And he had finally called me back after repeated attempts to reach him over the past week.

Instead of 30 seconds, Fitzpatrick gave me 109. In that time, he reiterated what his secretary had told me before — that the department was not willing to give out the names or contact information of these board members.

This was an odd response given that the boards’ meetings are public, and the board members are appointed by the governor. Surely the governor wasn’t appointing people who would remain a secret?

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act specifies that the proceedings of “[a]ny board or commission of any state agency or authority” are open to the public. The law further specifies that the public access requirement applies to “[a]ny advisory organization organization, including any authority, board, commission, committee, council, task force or similar organization of an advisory nature, established, authorized or organized by law or resolve or by Executive Order issued by the Governor.”

The visitors boards were certainly established by law.

I wanted to tell him this. I didn’t have time.

Fitzpatrick said he would put me in touch with the leader of one of the five boards of visitors, Tonya DiMillo, who could explain to me how the boards worked.

I wondered how DiMillo, chairwoman of the Long Creek board of visitors, would know what the other boards were doing, and how she would be allowed to give me information if even the commissioner was not willing to. Again, I didn’t have time to ask.

The conversation ended as abruptly as it began. I finished my sandwich. The commissioner never put me in touch with DiMillo.

Jake and I kept asking Kelene Barrows, the commissioner’s administrative assistant and gatekeeper, about these boards.

In the week following my phone call with Fitzpatrick, Jake and I racked up eight email back-and-forths with Barrows. The email chain ended with her writing, “I trust this answers all of your questions.”

It didn’t. We were left with more questions than answers.

For example, Barrows had written to us that there were five boards, but that two — those covering Long Creek and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham — were inactive. Yet the Long Creek board had recently been very clearly active. What was going on? Why were these boards inactive? She did not say.

And in response to our multiple requests for board members’ names, Barrows referred us to the facilities’ web pages. Yet only two of the pages covering the department’s nine state-run facilities listed names of board members. Of these two, one of them listed only vacant or expired seats.

What’s noteworthy is not just that the information was out of date and incomplete, but that the department had actually publicly posted the names of board members in the past. If the department was not willing to give us names or contact information of the board members, why did it list the names of two boards on its website?

When we pointed out how little information was on the website, Barrows simply said, “We are not willing to give out their personal contact information.” She suggested we could send a letter through the post office to the general address for each prison, in care of the board chair.

It turns out we weren’t the only people having difficulty getting information from the department.

“We can’t even get [the department of corrections] to talk to us. The governor has disallowed it,” Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, co-chairwoman of the criminal justice committee of the Legislature, told me. “This is the committee that is supposed to help oversee the criminal justice system in our state, and we’re not allowed to get information from the commissioners. … This is absolute insanity.”

In mid-May, Jake and I changed tack, giving up hope the department would share basic public information about the public boards that are meant to oversee its facilities.

On May 18 we submitted a formal request for the boards’ annual reports, going back to 2005, to the department under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which allows journalists and the public to access state government records.

Around then, Matthew Stone, another colleague, had a flash of inspiration. He knew where to get information about the boards: The Maine Department of the Secretary of State, which keeps records of public officials. The records were a little-known resource he had stumbled upon years ago while reporting another story.

The secretary of state sent us a list of the names and addresses of every board member within a day. After months of getting nowhere with the department of corrections, it felt like the speed of light.

These lists enabled us to contact board members, past and present. From them, we learned details about the boards that painted a picture of them as well meaning, but largely ineffective and dormant.

For example, Perry Gates, a member of the board that oversees the Maine State Prison and Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, called his board a “loose operation” that conducts a “fairly passive review of the administrative function of the prison.”

The Maine State Prison and Bolduc Correctional Facility board, which used to submit exhaustive reports every year, hadn’t done so for the past two years because the current chairman didn’t know they were required — and didn’t think anyone would read them.

And former members of the Maine Correctional Center’s five-member board, which currently has three vacancies, leaving it without a quorum that would allow it to conduct business, said they’ve long struggled to get enough people to serve.

“It’s hard to get people to volunteer their time,” Raelene Loura, the chairwoman of that board, told me. “What happens is people get busy, and they can’t commit.”

Things got interesting on May 22, when I called David Vickrey, a financial consultant from Portland who was on the board of Long Creek.

He told me that in March he’d received a three-sentence letter from LePage’s head of boards and commissions, Andrew Bracy, stating that his re-application to be on the board had not been accepted.

The decision came “after conferring with all interested parties in the governor’s office,” Bracy wrote.

The letter was dated six days after the Bangor Daily News had published a story on the Long Creek annual report that detailed the previously unknown suicide attempt at the youth prison and warned that more such tragic events were virtually inevitable. Vickrey was convinced the governor’s office did not want him on the board because he helped author this critical report.

“The whole modus operandi of LePage is to shoot the messenger,” Vickrey told me.

From there, Jake and I learned that another member of the Long Creek board had received the same letter, and a third hadn’t heard back about his application to serve another term. This left only the chair, DiMillo, on the board — rendering it, as the department had said, “inactive.” DiMillo declined to be interviewed.

By early June we had enough information to publish an article on how the LePage administration dismantled the Long Creek board after its members shared a report that the law requires it to assemble and to make public.

The Freedom of Access Act request we submitted to the department of corrections on May 18 requesting the boards’ annual reports and other information, remains unfulfilled.

About three weeks ago, on May 25, I reached out to Barrows to ask how long it might take and how much it might cost. By law, agencies are supposed to give a time and cost estimate “within a reasonable time of receiving the request.”

I am not able to provide you with the cost, if anything, or how long it will take to gather the various items you requested,” Barrows wrote.

And then, “I appreciate your patience.”

Today I wrote to Barrows again, asking her about the status of our request for public information.

I’ll let you know when I hear back.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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