Everyone concerned with solitary confinement has been closely watching a landmark effort in the Maine state legislature to pass a bill that would have significantly limited the practice in state prisons. On Monday that effort culminated in what some advocates have called a “gutted” version of the bill–and others see as a meaningful first step toward change. The Bangor Daily News reported yesterday:
As originally introduced, LD 1611 would have prohibited the placement of mentally ill prisoners in so-called “solitary confinement” and would have restricted prison officials’ ability to isolate all but the most dangerous inmates for longer than 45 days.
But the bill ran into staunch opposition, most notably from corrections officials and guards who predicted the new restrictions would make prisons more dangerous for both inmates and staff.
After lengthy debate on Monday, the House tossed out the most substantive aspects of the bill and, instead, passed a resolve essentially seeking additional information on inmates housed in what the state calls its “special management units.” The Senate later voted 18-15 to approve the same version, sending it back to the House for one last vote.
The resolve directs corrections officials to work with a mental health and substance abuse focus group to review the due process procedures for prisoners within special management units and report back to the Legislature next year.
In the past two months, the hearings in the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee have provided a unique public debate on solitary confinement, with testimony from Angola 3 member Robert King, who spent 29 years in solitary in Louisiana, and Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and a leading expert on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, among others. Supporters of the bill, originally introduced by Rep. James Schatz, included the Maine Council of Churches and the Maine Psychological Association, and the Maine Civil Liberties Union, as well as the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and Mainers Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement.
But the Committee failed to reach consensus on the bill and debate moved to the State House floor, where solitary confinement became what the Bangor Daily News called “one of the hot-button issues of the legislative session.”
Predictably, the strongest opposition came from Department of Corrections officials. Associate Commissioner Denise Lord said it would be “costly and difficult to implement the changes,” according to Maine’s Morning Sentinel. She told legislators, “More than half of our [prison] population have a mental health diagnosis.” (In fact, the DOC’s own data show that 63% of prisoners in the special management unit have mental illness and 48% of were prescribed psychotropic drugs for mental illness.)
At the same time, Lord also argued that the solitary confinement unit was really not such a bad place–and was getting better every day.
Prisoners housed in special management units are separated from the general population for weeks, months or in some cases years at a time, but Lord described a unit in which inmates have windows, toilets, and access to three books a week, as well as the ability to have visitors once a week and communicate with prisoners in other cells….
The Maine State Prison has begun to change its policies in the special management unit in the past few years, she said. Inmates brought into isolation for disciplinary reasons can now return to the general population in half the time with good behavior.
A behavioral curriculum similar to what the prison uses to address substance abuse issues, which encourages inmates to identify criminal thinking patterns they slip into and stop them, has been implemented. By completing these worksheets, inmates in the special management unit can earn more privileges, such as more phone calls and access to more books, Lord said.
Lord did not speculate as to how the “more than half” of her prisoners with mental illnesses, which include severe psychosis and crippling PTSD, might fare with their “worksheets.”
Other opponents made no pretense of having concern for prisoners. As Ron Huber, a prison reform activist and producer of a weekly radio show on Maine’s state prisons, told the Penobscot Bay Blog last week: “The prison industry waged a negative campaign attacking the reform bill as dangerous for prison guards and other officials.”
According to the Bangor Daily News, Rep. Richard Sykes was among several lawmaker who described the original bill–and even the toothless “resolve” that the legislature passed–as an attack on the safety and reputation of corrections officers. “It’s an insult to the state of Maine and it’s a slap in the face to those employees in the Department of Corrections … who quite frankly put their lives on the line every shift,” Sykes said.
After the vote on Monday, the Maine Civil Liberties Union tried its best to put a positive spin on things. “Today was a moral victory for those concerned about human rights and security at the Maine State Prison, but much work needs to be done to resolve the excessive use of solitary confinement there,” said MCLU executive director Shenna Bellows.
In an email following the vote, Lance Tapley–a freelance journalist whose reporting on the lockdown unit for the Portland Phoenix helped inspire the movement to limit solitary–emphasized the positive side, as well. The legislature’s passage of the resolve, he wrote “is a strong implicit–and during the debate this was made quite explicit–criticism of the department’s supermax policies, especially solitary confinement of the mentally ill.” It will keep the issue alive, he believes, and guarantee further debate next year.
But “the biggest triumphs,” Tapley continued, “were the public’s education on
the issue and the education of legislators, this last vividly seen in
the unusual three-hour debate. Even the words ‘torture’ and ‘Abu
Ghraib’ were used on the floor of the House.” What has happened in Maine so far, he said, could be viewed as a “dry run for the big reform in the future.”