The Maine Redemption: Bill Challenges Solitary Confinement in State's Prisons

| Tue Jan. 12, 2010 10:27 AM EST

Most Americans’ knowledge of the Maine prison system probably ends with the grim, gray penitentiary depicted in The Shawshank Redemption.  But the prison of Stephen King’s imagination is a benign place compared with the current reality of incarceration in Maine’s state prisons–especially its 100-man solitary confinement unit. Conditions in the lockdown unit have become the subject of public debate in recent years, and of a bill now making its way through the state legislature that would restrict and closely monitor the use of solitary confinement. If the bill is passed, Maine would become the first state in the union to directly confront this form of domestic torture through the legislative process.

One hundred out of some 900 cells at the Maine State Prison at Warren comprise what is euphemistically known as the Special Management Unit (SMU), where prisoners live in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement (24 on weekends), allowed out only to take a shower, make a phone call, or exercise alone in what looks like the run in a dog kennel. About half of the inmates in the unit are there for disciplinary reasons, the other half because of special problems, mental or physical illness.  (For the record,  Maine’s Associate Commissioner of Corrections, Denise Lord, told The Crime Report in October that only 27 of Maine’s 2263 prisoners are in solitary.)

In 2005, Lance Tapley, a freelance journalist  for the Portland Phoenix, began writing about what he called “Torture in Maine’s Prisons.” Tapley treated the good people of Maine to a series of articles documenting conditions in the SMU. In one article, accompanied by a video, Tapley describes guards dragging a prisoner out of his cell, naked and screaming, forcing him into restraint chair (an excerpt appears at the end of this post).

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In other articles,  a mentally ill inmate is transferred from a state mental hospital, where he was undergoing treatment, to prison, where the treatment is stopped. (Maine attorney general Steven Rowe proposed a law to deny mentally ill prisoners psychiatric care until they had completed their sentences.)  An inmate who is found hanging in his cell is mocked by a guard who says “you can do better than that,” and drags his feet in reporting the death to authorities. A sex offender with diabetes confined to a wheelchair is beaten to death in his cell. Supermax prisoners stage a hunger strike to protest conditions in the unit. One prisoner, Deane Brown, who speaks openly with Tapley and also reports on prisons for a community radio station, is harassed by corrections officials and then shipped off to a supermax in Maryland, in what his supporters call “punitive exile.”

Stan Moody, a former state legislator who is now a chaplain at the Maine State Prison, also wrote recently about conditions in the SMU in the Republican-Journal. He concluded that inmate treatment “becomes secondary to the need on the part of prison administration to keep everything in order, under control and, of course, secret,” an attitude which occasionally leads to “extreme violations of human rights.”

Tapley’s reporting helped fuel a campaign by the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition and other reformers for a bill restricting the use of solitary confinement. They have organized themselves into the Maine Coalition Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement. Last fall, Representative Bill Shatz, who serves on the  criminal justice and public safety committee of the state legislature, introduced a bill that would limit use of solitary, ban brutal forms of restraint, and provide due process for inmates sent there. “Since Guantanamo, we keep seeing that the use of segregation and solitary confinement is not so much a treatment as a punishment and a control aspect. That just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Schatz told the Bangor Daily News.

Being put into solitary is an administrative decision, made internally by the prison on the basis of some perceived odd behavior, disciplinary violation, or, as Tapley’s work suggests, as a matter of whim. Once there, an inmate will remain for an indeterminate amount of time or be let out on the basis of  the administration’s discretion. That might involve some reason, or, just as likely, no reason at all.

Schatz said he believes  existing guidelines are largely ignored and in any event insufficient and that people who are locked away in solitary are afforded no access to due process. “Some sort of advocate needs to be in place for these inmates,” he told me in a phone interview. Schatz thinks that the existing board of visitors, appointed by the governor, could act in effect as an internal administrative court. It could hear medical and psychiatric reports, view medication regimens, hear complaints–in short, provide oversight within the prison of who goes in and out of the SMU, and why. As it stands, he says, there is little oversight of the prison system as a whole, save for a pro forma accreditation of the system by a national board of prisons.

The bill Schatz introduced, called The Resolve to Reduce the Use and Abuse of Solitary Confinement, now has several co-sponsors, including the House majority leader. It cleared the first hurdle in the state’s legislative process last fall when it was accepted into the current legislative session; committee hearings on the bill are expected to begin soon. The text of the bill includes the following:

Solitary confinement is extreme administrative sanction with the potential to cause severe harm to life and health, particularly for people with mental and physical illnesses and disabilities….Therefore, prolonged solitary confinement shall only be imposed under the most extreme circumstances, when no lesser restraints on liberty are sufficient to achieve its specified limited purposes.

The bill prohibits placing prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary, and everyone there is to be examined by a licensed mental health professional at least every seven days. And it says no prisoner can be kept in solitary for more than 45 days without a hearing where it is established that the inmate committed or tried to commit a violent act causing serious injury or death, an act connected to sexual assault and an escape or attempted escape.

If passed, the bill would ensure an end to the types of brutal treatment described by Lance Tapley in his first article on Maine’s SMU:

Five hollering guards wearing helmets, face shields, and full body armor charge into a mentally ill man’s cell. The first attacker smashes a big shield into him, knocking him down. The attackers jump on him, spray Mace into his face, push him onto his bed, and twist his arms to his back so they can handcuff him. They connect the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. Then they take him into the corridor, cut off all his clothes, and carry him naked and screaming through the cellblock, continuing to Mace him. They put him in an observation room where they bind him to a restraint chair with straps. He remains there naked and cold for hours, yelling and mumbling.

To many people, this scene would look like torture. A scene like it might have taken place in the infamous Abu Graib prison near Baghdad, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described to me independently by six prisoners, including some who have suffered this attack, it is business as usual — an “extraction” for disobedience — in the Special Management Unit, also known as the SMU or the “Supermax,” a 100-cell, maximum-security, solitary-confinement facility inside the new 1100-inmate Maine State Prison in Warren.

 

This post also appears on Solitary Watch.