In the latest issue of the Portland Phoenix, Lance Tapley interviews Maine’s new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte. Before Ponte’s appointment, a grassroots movement in Maine raised public awareness around use and abuse of solitary confinement in Maine State Prison’s Special Management Unit (SMU), and led to an attempt to pass legislation limiting solitary. Since he was installed last winter, Ponte has instituted reforms in the SMU, reducing it’s average population by about two-thirds. A few excerpts follow; the interview can be read in full on the Portland Phoenix’s site.
YOU’VE MADE BIG CHANGES — ESPECIALLY IN THE SPECIAL MANAGEMENT UNIT AND THE MAINE STATE PRISON AS A WHOLE. IS THIS SOMETHING THAT YOU WANTED TO DO BEFORE YOU CAME TO MAINE? No. It was waiting for me when I arrived. There had been threats of lawsuits by the ACLU. A substantial committee had been put together that had worked for a good amount of time to develop what the concerns were. So I put a group together — led by Rod Bouffard from the Long Creek youth facility — to make the changes. And you’re right, there have been substantial changes. It is a big deal. It’s a lot for a staff to adjust to. It’s a whole different way of doing business.
I get asked the question: Do you get a lot of staff resistance? Well, we had trained staff for many, many years to do business a certain way, and now we’re telling them here’s another way of doing business. It took a good deal of leadership by Warden [Patricia] Barnhart and Charlie Charlton, the SMU unit manager, to convince staff there is another way, and try this, and it’s worked.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S WORKED?We have 60 beds that have been closed for three or four months. We’re utilizing about 40-something beds on any given day. So inmates that were typically locked up in segregation are now being managed in general population. Segregation tends not to fix the problem that the inmate needs to address.
We had to measure the outcomes. Did we increase inmate violence? And every measure we’ve had, first in segregation — the acting out, the use of chemicals, the use of force, use of restraint chair — those numbers have dropped significantly, so segregation is a better place. And then we took those same measurements and looked at them in population — inmate assaults, staff assaults, use of force — did they increase after we limited the use of segregation to the more violent offenders? All of our data show us that the situation actually has improved and not gotten worse.
HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE IMPROVEMENT IN GENERAL POPULATION? The effectiveness of our staff interacting with inmates and changing behavior. Locking them up in segregation didn’t change the behavior. Instead, we do informal sanctions, like you lose your recreation time, or you lose your commissary privileges, or you’re locked in your cell for a period of time.
PEOPLE WHO WERE PUT INTO SEGREGATION BECAUSE THEY WERE ALLEGED TO BE VIOLENT, YOU’RE NOW PUTTING THEM INTO GENERAL POPULATION, AND YOU’RE SAYING YOU’RE ACTUALLY GETTING LESS VIOLENCE NOW? That’s correct.
WHAT CAUSES THAT? Face-to-face interaction starts the process — where the officers know the offender, they know what the issues are, they work on the issues. An inmate fight would be a good example. It used to be they would go to seg. They would do their disciplinary time in seg. It might take two or three months, that whole process. Now an inmate gets into a fight, they’ll go to seg and be evaluated. We would decide, after talking with the inmate and staff, can these guys go back in population. If they had a little disagreement and there were no serious injuries, they’ll probably go back either in the same housing unit or in some cases the fighters will be separated…