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).