Why the Kennebec County sheriff controversy is such a great disappointment

The recent news about Gov. Paul LePage hand picking a replacement for Randall Liberty, former sheriff of Kennebec County, was all-around disappointing. Liberty recently became warden at our state prison, and Ryan Reardon has been interim sheriff since. County commissioners recommended Reardon to become sheriff until elections in November, but LePage insisted on more than one recommendation and picked his own, Ken Mason with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office.

As a resident of Kennebec County, I am disappointed in just about everyone involved — LePage, county commissioners, the media — with the possible exception of Reardon whose public statement sheds light on the source of my disappointment. Reardon released a simple statement reflexive of a professional committed to public service, committed to the many “projects, programs, and decisions that need to be made every day.”

Reardon’s reference to “programs” is a study in understatement. What Reardon understands is Kennebec County Correctional Facility is not just any county jail, thanks to Liberty and the team he developed. Reardon most likely understands Liberty was more than just a sheriff. Liberty is an innovator.

Before Maine’s addiction epidemic was getting attention, before the police-driven programming like Project HOPE in Scarborough, there was CARA at Kennebec County Correctional Facility; there was the Restorative Community Harvest.

Kennebec’s Restorative Community Harvest was an idea developed almost 20 years ago by one Deputy Randall Liberty for the jail. Participants maintain a garden that produces food for organizations that serve the needy in Maine. This program has grown to become a considerable player in the battle against hunger in Maine — to such an extent that while interviewing the woman in charge of nutrition at Skowhegan-based MSAD 54, she reported that she was awaiting a delivery of several hundred pounds of potatoes from the folks there.

MSAD 54 participates in a federal nutrition program that targets communities with high rates of food insecurity. Laura Pineo, director of nutrition, told me that donations from the Community Harvest program free up money for other purchases and are a critical part of program success. The dream of a young deputy has grown to feed people and children all over our state, while simultaneously incorporating accountability, community responsibility, and vocational rehabilitation into a corrections program.

CARA, Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy, is an in-house program also created by Liberty that addresses addiction, its roots for each participant, and the behaviors related to the disease that lead to criminal problems. Participants are separated from the general population and adhere to a pretty tough schedule. The key themes of the program are evident in the final line of the creed participants repeat daily: We have come together. Together to be accountable members of the community and live the potential that stands before us.

The CARA program, Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy, at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility was started in 2010 to address the criminal thinking associated with drug addiction. (Carter F. McCall | BDN)

The CARA program, Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy, at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility was started in 2010 to address the criminal thinking associated with drug addiction. (Carter F. McCall | BDN)

I’ve had the good fortune to interview Liberty, who struck me as epitomizing the ideals of accountability, community and potential, in his vision for the correctional facility, his vision for his inmates and his standards for himself. Liberty spoke honestly and openly about his own troubled childhood and how he knew many of his inmates came from similar backgrounds. He expressed gratitude to have been able to reach a potential beyond his past and wanted the same for his inmates.

Liberty wanted his inmates to reach their potential so badly that at the time of the interview (spring 2015) he was running the CARA program without state funds and was having to do all sorts of managerial backbends to keep it up and running. The 14-percent recidivism rate for participants was justification enough from his perspective.

I’ve never interviewed Reardon as a blogger, but in the interest of full disclosure, I have interacted with him when he pulled me over for driving an un-inspected car. He was much, much nicer and more willing to listen than the state police officer who had pulled me over for the same infraction days before. After we resolved the issue of my illegal beater, I mentioned that I had interviewed then-Sheriff Liberty and was a big fan of his work.

Reardon spoke highly of his boss and of what it was like to learn from Liberty. I can’t remember his exact words, but I do remember him referring to Liberty taking him “under his wing” and expressed gratitude about this mentorship. I remember thinking afterword about Liberty’s ability to surround himself with good people.

I am disappointed in LePage because I’d like to think the reason he picked Liberty to be warden was because of all the innovation Liberty was doing on his own. If that was the reason, LePage should have been confident in picking a Liberty protege like Reardon. He should have been able to articulate the reasons why he picked Liberty as the very reasons he would pick Reardon to maintain continuity until the election rolled around.

Instead, by snubbing Reardon, LePage looks ignorant of the very reasons Liberty was a terrific choice for warden. Rather than speaking articulately about the cutting edge programming already up and running at Kennebec County jail, rather than using this vacancy as an opportunity to promote the innovations of Liberty and his Kennebec County staff, rather than seeing an opportunity to further progress the issue of addiction and criminal justice reform in Maine, LePage made this appointment about politics and about himself.

The same goes for the commissioners involved and the media who should have spoken with great pride about what is going on at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. None of the coverage I saw discussed any of the programs Liberty developed. None of the coverage referred to the importance of continuity at an organization that is operating ahead of the curve at a critical time. None of the coverage sounded like this was an opportunity to highlight innovation or recognize excellence, which it is.

This situation is so much more than just a pissing contest between LePage and Kennebec County Democrats.

This situation is about the maintenance of trendsetting programs. This situation is about the best interest of inmates, their families and their sending communities who benefit from the outcomes of these programs. This situation is about all the mentally ill and addicted whose illnesses have contributed to criminal behavior — behavior Liberty was determined to address through thoughtful programming and advocacy. But that’s not what LePage, the media or commissioners are talking about.

Liberty’s leadership has been a guiding light as far as redirecting and reshaping our criminal justice system to address issues like addiction, mental illness and vocational rehabilitation. Reardon,as Liberty’s understudy, has had a front row seat to watch and help Liberty make dreams into functioning, successful realities that serve community. Reardon knows Liberty’s methodology and is in the best position to maintain continuity until voters get to choose in November.

If only more people knew and understood.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.