Guest Post by Lance Tapley
I often tell people—perhaps shocking some—that a prison inmate I know, Deane Brown, is one of the most moral individuals I’ve ever met. This despite the fact that he had gotten in deep trouble since early childhood because, he once told me, he felt no moral compunction about taking things from well-off people.
As a consequence of that lack of scruple, he is serving 59 years for masterminding a string of burglaries in Maine in the 1990s. It’s probably a life sentence.
Here’s a typical Deane Brown story: Seven years ago, when he was at the Maine State Prison, the lights went out in his “pod” because of an electrical malfunction. There were no emergency lights.
“It was pitch dark,” Haley Black told me. She was a new, 21-year-old guard and the only officer in the pod, which housed 64 men. “Especially for a female, all kinds of things could happen.”
She was startled to find Brown, a husky man, backing up to her. “‘I’ll protect you in case something happens,’” he told her.
When the lights came on, some chairs had been thrown around, but nothing had happened to her. Black, now a student at a community college, said of her protector: “He’s a sweet guy.”
Around the time of that incident was when I first heard of Brown. In the summer of 2005 I received an email that began: “I’m writing to ask you to take a hard look at the Maine State Prison’s treatment of inmates at its ‘Supermax’ facility in Warren, Maine.”
The email’s author, Ron Huber, a political activist who lives near the prison and who has a weekly call-in show on a tiny community radio station, described letters and phone calls from an inmate, Brown, who complained about the guards’ harshness, the unsanitary conditions, and the destructive solitary confinement of the wing of the prison—officially, the Special Management Unit—that he had been thrust into.
I had reported on Maine government for many years, but I knew nothing about the supermax. For that matter, like most reporters, I knew nothing about prisons.
After several requests and an appeal to the governor’s office, I finally got to see Brown that fall. Although we were separated by thick Plexiglas in a “non-contact” cubicle, he was in handcuffs and leg irons. Then in his early 40s with long, dark hair and a wispy beard, he proved to be highly intelligent and articulate.
He had been held in the unit for months, he said, because guards had discovered small tools in his cell that they claimed could be used in an escape attempt. Brown said he used them to fix inmates’ radios.
“It’s supposed to be an administrative program for correcting behavior,” he said of the supermax. Instead, “It’s creating animals.”
He vividly described brutal, frequent “cell extractions” of severely mentally ill inmates who were in the supermax because they were incapable of following prison rules. They should be in mental institutions, he said. Solitary confinement only made them crazier and, eventually, suicidal.
His description of the supermax made me think of the word “torture.” The treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib had given the word a new resonance. Was torture accurate to describe what happened in the supermax?
Brown said yes, and the torture was both physical—for example, cell extractions, which were essentially beatings for disobedience by a team of guards who then tied the inmate to a restraint chair—and psychological—near-total isolation in a tiny, bare cell with the lights always on.
The most disturbed prisoners threw their feces at guards and, after cutting themselves, their blood. Those actions lengthened their supermax stay—sometimes, for years, after they were criminally charged with assault. Brown said the walls and ceilings were literally coated with shit and blood. In the three hours of our interview, I filled a notebook.
He had a list of other supermax inmates who wanted to talk with me. Two days later, I interviewed four of them. That day, I filled two notebooks. The five descriptions I obtained of the supermax launched my series for the Portland Phoenix and then for other publications on America’s unique practice of mass torture.
Eventually, a prison-reform movement in Maine stimulated a new governor, Republican Paul LePage, and his new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, to dramatically reduce and reform the state’s practice of prisoner isolation. When in June Senator Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, convened the first Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, he praised Ponte’s actions.
But Maine’s anti-solitary movement had begun with Deane Brown, and he paid dearly for his activism.
At first, perhaps because of the publicity given him, his situation improved. He was released from the supermax into the prison general population. Through 2006, we continued to be in close contact—in person at the prison, in mail, and in information relayed to me via his phone calls to a close friend. I learned a lot about the prison, but I also learned his personal story.
It’s the old story: the nexus of poverty, parental neglect, physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, lack of education, drug abuse, criminality. The story began with him chained to the sink by alcoholic parents. He spent most of his youth in psychiatric and penal institutions. In one, he said, an employee would come at night and painfully squeeze his testicles. He was six years old.
He also spent time at a private “boot camp” for teenager offenders—Elan, in Maine, now closed—where he said he was buried up to his neck in the ground overnight on three occasions and where he said Kennedy nephew Michael Skakel, later convicted of a notorious murder, beat him up.
The New Hampshire prison system provided him his first lengthy experience with solitary confinement—eight years of it. In institutions where power tends toward the absolute, challenging authority makes you unpopular with authority, and wherever Brown has been incarcerated he continually has complained about abuse and—the quintessential jailhouse lawyer—has helped other inmates with their complaints. His protests have led him to hunger strikes, refusals to take medicine, and threats to commit suicide.
In Maine in 2006, his continuing, pain-in-the-ass-to-the-prison contact with Ron Huber and me resulted, late in the year, in his being “shipped out,” in a prisoner exchange, to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, that state’s supermax in Baltimore—600 miles from his friends, family, and the Maine news media.
The Maine corrections commissioner at the time, Martin Magnusson, would not explain why. Later, when Brown unsuccessfully challenged the transfer in court, prison officials admitted that his contact with the press was a reason he was sent away. They also said he had helped another prisoner try to escape.
Brown maintained that he had never even met the prisoner who had tried to escape. His lack of participation in the escape plot was confirmed to me by a prisoner who admitted his own involvement.
Several Maine prison guards have told me they felt Brown got a raw deal by being exiled from Maine. He was popular with some guards and many inmates. Recently, out of the blue, a corrections officer wrote me saying he’d like to help get Brown back to Maine.
Although the Catholic chaplain at the Baltimore supermax told me Brown was out of his element there because there was no violence in his prison history, he was kept in Baltimore for 20 months.
The Baltimore supermax was far more violent than the Maine prison, Brown told me in a recent interview, because there were no gangs in Maine. But it was in some ways looser. Prisoners could have televisions and radios. The Maryland supermax showed Maine’s to have “so much overkill it was pathetic,” Brown said. He has long been amazed at the arbitrariness of the supermax world.
Brown next was transferred to Western Correctional Institution in the Maryland mountains before landing in the adjacent, brand-new, high-tech North Branch Correctional Institution, with a 256-bed single-cell unit that replaced the Baltimore supermax’s role in the Maryland prison system.
These rural prisons are in a kind of correctional industrial park surrounding by forested hills and rings of concertina wire. The prisoners are mostly urban African Americans, the guards rural whites. But there are some white prisoners: white-supremacist inmates beat him up in North Branch, Brown said, because he was friendly with blacks.
He spent much of his time in North Branch in solitary. This was punishment, he felt, for his propensity to file grievances and lawsuits—often, because of the dangerous way insulin was administered for his diabetes.
He has lost most of his legal battles, but a Maryland judge awarded him $2,500 for damages because of medical neglect. This was a rare victory for a prisoner—one he was confident prison officials deeply resented.
In 2010 he was transferred to New Jersey— ostensibly, he said, because of a threat to his life in Maryland. But he believed officials shipped him out because of his legal troublemaking.
He was first put in the solitary-confinement Management Control Unit of the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton—where, he told me, many prisoners are mentally ill, corroborating what a former inmate there, Ojore Lutalo, has told me.
Brown said Trenton put him into solitary, officials informed him, because of his locksmith skills, which he has the unfortunate habit of bragging about. He was surprised that he was treated “as if I was dangerous.”
Our conversation took place in the Trenton prison, a big, brick, jumbled-together complex next to a superhighway. Before I interviewed him I had to talk a guard and a public-relations minder out of putting him into the room’s iron cage.
I had visited Brown several times in Maryland. Now 48, he has long had significant health issues: diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, thyroid trouble, waves of depression. But previously he had looked okay and cracked jokes continually with a subtle wit.
In our New Jersey interview, however, he was less animated, paler, heavier, and had a weaker voice. He said he had developed a “lung infection.” His diabetes was causing his feet to bleed. He was living in a quasi-medical unit in the prison general population. I feared his fight against prison conditions might finally be wearing him out.
We talked a good deal about solitary confinement. He had become an authority on the subject during his long career of incarceration for, mostly, burglaries. Besides the eight years in isolation in New Hampshire, there was a year in Maine, almost three years in Maryland, plus four months in New Jersey.
“Your mentality is going to change” with any prison experience, he said, but the change is more extreme in solitary because the prisoner’s thoughts are not shaped by social contact. Instead, “you’re influenced by four walls and what you think about, and what you think about is all you’ve got for information.” So delusions are created, and there’s no way to test what you’re imagining against the real world—”no trial and error,” he said. A typical delusion: “You start thinking you’re invincible.” That delusion can get a prisoner into profound trouble.
Long periods of solitary lead to rage. For example, an inmate who had been put into solitary because he used foul language against a guard, Brown said, may begin to think, “‘Now I wish I had killed the son of a bitch.’” He added: “Some people just crumble. They become different people.”
Brown once wrote to Maine legislators when they were considering an ultimately unsuccessful bill to restrict solitary confinement: “Is it right or wise to destroy our minds and spirits and then, should we survive, dump us upon an unsuspecting public?”
His spirited activism has occasionally brought him support from the outside, including from the National Lawyers Guild, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and pro-bono attorneys in Maine, Maryland, and now in New Jersey.
Jean Ross, of Princeton, one of New Jersey’s stalwart warriors against prisoner abuse, helped him get out of solitary and has advocated for better medical treatment. She also has given him food packages and money. She is “a remarkable woman,” he said.
At present, Ross is doing the legal work to try to get him back to Maine. This seems possible at last because Ponte, the corrections chief, has emerged as one of the most progressive in the country. Ponte’s reductions of solitary confinement and inmate extractions were the very reforms Brown was promoting when he was sent out of state. Ponte also has instituted a new “right of return” policy—as prison activists in Maine have taken to calling it—that makes it easier for prisoners exiled to other states to apply to come back. Motivated by what happened to Brown, Ron Huber had worked with Ponte to create the new policy.
Brown sees his case hinging on whether the escape accusation against him will be believed. But the deputy warden who was his chief accuser at the Maine State Prison was fired soon after Ponte took over—a promising development for Brown’s chances.
The national movement against prisoner abuse—including the growing movement against solitary confinement—is composed of various kinds of activists: prisoner family members, civil-rights attorneys, religious people, reform-organization staff and volunteers, and journalists.
These folks have the good fortune to live outside of a prison. But there are activists like Deane Brown on the inside. They face very different challenges in, and very different consequences for, their activism. “I am proud of my suffering because I know that, through it all, change has come to many,” Brown once wrote me from Maryland.
Of course, his gang of burglars caused suffering to others. But he has admitted his guilt, he has spent far longer in prison than he would have spent for similar crimes in any other civilized country, and his suffering has been considerable throughout his life.
When some people experience great suffering, they become insensitive to the suffering of others or even want to inflict pain on others. But in prison Brown’s reaction has been different.
Ross, his attorney, tells of a New Jersey prisoner in a wheelchair who deeply insulted Brown while he was transporting him within the prison. Some inmates insisted that the prison culture required that Brown hit the man. But Brown wouldn’t do it.
Ross comments: “I have great respect for Deane because he demonstrates his obvious compassion for others with action—even actions that place him in jeopardy.”
Lance Tapley is a freelance investigative reporter based in Maine. His work frequently appears in the Portland Phoenix. He contributed “Mass Torture in America” to the anthology The United States and Torture, published by NYU Press.