Randall Liberty, pictured Jan. 15, has been nominated to be the new commissioner for the Maine Department of Corrections. Credit: Gabor Degre

WARREN, Maine — Within a year, the nominee for commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections wants to introduce medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders into the state prison system, re-establish a closed correctional facility in Washington County, and transform the reputation of a department that has been notoriously closed off.

Those steps, among others to boost programming and better connect inmates with the help they need upon their release, are part of Randall Liberty’s overall goal to reduce the number of people who re-offend after they leave prison.

“We’ve created an environment of progressive, healthy opportunity here, and we’ll continue that,” Liberty said in an interview at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where he has been warden since 2015.

Gov. Janet Mills nominated Liberty, who is also a former Kennebec County sheriff, Dec. 28. The Maine Legislature is expected to confirm him within a month.

His appointment comes at a time when Maine’s drug crisis has continued to take lives and propel people into confrontations with the law. The opioid epidemic will shape the new commissioner’s role at the helm of Maine’s prison system, which has been strained by an increase in inmates who need treatment for substance use disorders.

Currently, prisoners aren’t allowed to treat their addictions using medications — such as methadone, buprenorphine or naltrexone — despite it being standard medical practice. Prison officials, worried about certain medications being trafficked, instead offer a range of counseling options.

Liberty would change that. In an interview Tuesday, he had few details about a possible medication-assisted treatment pilot program, such as how large it would be, where the pilot would take place, which medications would be offered and how.

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In the near future, he said, he plans to meet with and seek advice from corrections officials in Rhode Island, one of several states to have created medication-assisted treatment programs.

Studies have shown that medications are more effective than counseling alone and that they lower reoffense rates.

Expanding substance use treatment isn’t is the only thing that would set him apart from the approach of his predecessor, Joseph Fitzpatrick, under former Gov. Paul LePage.

As commissioner, Liberty would become the public face of a department that, under LePage, rarely communicated with the public, stonewalled inquiries from journalists and elected officials, and operated under dwindled levels of oversight.

“Not anymore,” Liberty said.

[Watchdogs revealed crisis in Maine’s youth prison. LePage let them go.]

Liberty vowed that under his leadership the department would be transparent in answering to the public both through the media and through increased communication with lawmakers.

In Maine, there are five citizen watchdog groups empowered by law to monitor and inspect state correctional facilities and recommend changes. Under the previous administration, one of these groups was dismantled after it brought to light a crisis at the state’s youth correctional facility.

But Liberty sees the members of these groups ― called boards of visitors ― as mentors who provide outside perspective.

“I am in full support of transparency in a tax-funded facility and operation,” Liberty said. “That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now.”

For the last three years at the Maine State Prison, Liberty oversaw about 900 inmates annually. In his new role, he will be responsible for supervising and guiding Maine’s five adult correctional facilities with a population of about 2,400 inmates, along with inmates at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

Within the next year, Liberty hopes to bring the number of adult facilities back to six by re-establishing a prison in Washington County. Last year, LePage abruptly closed the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, relocating about 60 inmates and putting 39 people out of work.

Liberty said the administration is currently exploring either reopening the existing facility or purchasing a new facility that would better meet the needs of the inmates and staff. However, it is too early to estimate what the cost of a new facility would be, he said.

While there is some funding left over for the prison from previous legislation, Liberty said reopening the facility would require legislative approval of funding for staff.

In addition to the prison’s employees who lost their jobs, Liberty said many of the inmates participate in work release with local employers, causing the closure of the facility to adversely affect Washington County towns.

“We are going to open up something in Washington County. We are going to re-employ those employees, and we are going to provide inmates for the workforce,” Liberty said. “That will happen.”

[Inside the life and fall of a young Maine man addicted to heroin]

Liberty has not formed an opinion on whether he would like to see the eventual shuttering of Maine’s youth prison, which has faced repeated calls for closure after a reported pattern of violence and self-harm within its walls.

Among his top priorities this year, he said, will be forming a task force to study ways to address the problems at Long Creek. Though most agree that fewer Maine youth should be behind bars, the group needs to determine if the state still requires a prison setting for a small group of offenders that would otherwise pose a safety risk, he said.

Prior to being warden, Liberty, 54, served in the U.S. Army, the Army National Guard and Army Reserves, and spent 26 years with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, including nine as sheriff.

In this role, Liberty oversaw the Kennebec County Correctional Facility and established the Criminogenic Addiction and Recovery Academy, or CARA, which grouped inmates struggling with substance use disorders together to provide them with addiction and mental health treatment.

Liberty brought his focus on programming to the Maine State Prison when he became warden. As commissioner, Liberty said he wants to “significantly enhance” the vocational and substance use programs available to inmates throughout the prison system, with a focus on those that are either “low cost or no cost.”

Under Liberty’s lead, the state prison offered an agriculture program that certified participating inmates as master gardeners and provided thousands of pounds of produce to the food pantry in Rockland. Another program paired inmates living in the prison’s veteran pod with certified instructors to create military veteran service dogs.

Liberty believes these types of arrangements, and collaboration with outside organizations, are integral to improving an inmate’s chance of successfully re-entering society — something the department has struggled with in recent years.

The Pine Tree state has one of the smallest incarcerated populations in the country, but just under a third of its adult offenders released from state custody will return to a state facility in three years, a figure that rose between 2010 and 2013, according to state data. That number does not count people who leave prison and later end up at a county jail.

The solution to reducing recidivism has evaded the department, which has little contact with former inmates once they leave a facility, but Liberty thinks it’s possible to do without increasing the department’s budget if officials can better connect people being released with outside organizations.

“I think if you’re innovative, if you’re creative, compassionate, if you have empathy — I think much can be accomplished,” he said.

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

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.