As Lance Tapley reported last week, recent developments in Maine demonstrate the difference that reform-minded leadership can make to prison conditions, including the use and abuse of solitary confinement. Even as it has grown exponentially over recent decades, the use of solitary has generally been treated not as a human rights issue but as a matter of correctional policy. As a result, tens of thousands of prisoners have been placed in isolation largely at the behest of prison guards and wardens, with the approval of state departments of protections. Now, Maine’s corrections commissioner is instead using his power to reform state policies and procedures in relation to solitary confinement.
“Less than three months into his job,” Tapley writes in the Portland Phoenix, “Maine’s new corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has begun to dramatically reform the Maine State Prison’s long-troubled solitary-confinement ‘supermax’ unit.” Ponte has thus far cut the unit’s population by more than half, from 132 inmates to 60, and “has ordered that an inmate can’t be placed in the supermax for longer than 72 hours without his personal approval.” Ponte also issued new rules that have stopped “brutal ‘cell extractions’ by guards of uncooperative inmates” (a practice that was widely exposed by Tapley’s reporting and leaked prison videos several years ago). “Extractions normally end with inmates strapped into a restraint chair. There were 54 extractions in 2010 and 74 in 2009, the Department of Corrections says, and before publicity about them in recent years the annual number was in the hundreds.” The article continues:
Ponte has made supermax problems a top department priority. Besides guard violence in handling inmates,…the Special Management Unit or SMU, has been beset by suspicious inmate deaths, suicide attempts, inmates cutting themselves, hunger strikes, and assaults on guards — especially, deranged or incensed prisoners throwing their feces, urine, or blood at them.
Ponte’s solutions include challenging a one-size-fits-all correctional-officer attitude quick to punish prisoners with solitary confinement for the slightest infraction — and then to let them languish in isolation for weeks, months, or even years…
As alternatives to solitary when prisoners do things they shouldn’t, he has asked guards to use what he calls “informal sanctions,” like taking away commissary or recreation privileges. And he stopped the practice of keeping people in the supermax beyond the term of their punishment because there wasn’t a bed available in a particular housing unit. The prison actually has plenty of unoccupied cells.
Sometimes inmates being investigated for in-prison crimes stayed in the supermax for months as investigations dragged on. Ponte has imposed a seven-day limit on such stays.
To continue with reforms, Ponte has created “a department-wide committee to which he has added representation from activists,” including the NAACP and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Committee. MPAC had spearheaded recent efforts to pass legislation limiting solitary confinement, especially for inmates with mental illness. Those efforts failed to achieve their goals, but they did result in the commissioning of a report which made recommendations that are now guiding reform. Details about the report can be found in Tapley’s article, which should be read in full, not least for a sobering dose of reality to accompany these hopeful developments. As the article points out, the changes are, unsurprisingly, being met with resistance from some prison staff, and skepticism from som prisoners. “Not all supermax problems are likely to be quickly solved, and not every recommendation of the report is universally supported — such as the suggestion that a law be passed to make it legally easier to force mentally ill inmates to take psychiatric medication.” Some problems in the supermax “are tied to prison-wide conditions” such as substandard medical and mental health care, and solving them would cost money that the state is unwilling to spend. And of course, while half of the prisoners have been moved out of the supermax unit, the other half still remain there.
[MPAC leader Judy] Garvey and other activists think the ultimate solution for supermax problems is to close down much of the rest of it. Then its former inmates would have, for example, “room to exercise,” she says (most supermax exercise is done in individual dog runs outdoors). They would be able to participate in educational programs. They wouldn’t suffer the terrible mental and physical effects of isolation. In other words, they would be treated more like human beings.