Is solitary confinement torture?

Posted Oct. 23, 2009, at 7:24 p.m.

Solitary confinement.

Those two words carry a lot of meaning to Raymond Luc Levasseur of Waldo, who said he spent 15 years in solitary confinement during his 18 years in federal prison after a conviction for a string of terrorist bombings in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“I think it’s recognized by most people that extended solitary confinement is going to cross the line at some point to psychological torture of an individual,” Levasseur said earlier this week. “I’ve seen everything from suicides to people slipping into total depression, becoming extremely violent, smearing themselves with feces because there’s nothing left to do.”

Levasseur, 62, bombed his way to notoriety as a member of the radical group the United Freedom Front, which was linked to the bombings of 19 buildings, including Central Maine Power Co. headquarters in Augusta and the Suffolk County Courthouse in Boston.

He once was listed among the FBI’s Most Wanted and served parts of his prison term in Marion, Ill., and Atlanta, and in a Supermax facility in Florence, Colo. He also served part of his sentence in Maine State Prison in Thomaston in 1984, where he spent four months “in the hole.” In 2004 he was released from the prison in Atlanta to a Portland halfway house.

Now, the ex-convict is fighting a different battle, this one against the use of solitary confinement in Maine. He’s one of the proponents of the proposed legislation, “An Act to Reduce the Use and Abuse of Solitary Confinement,” which will be taken up by the Maine Legislature in January during the emergency legislative session. A committee of the Legislature, the Maine Legislative Council, voted last week to consider the bill.

“I don’t think anybody can come out of an experience in extended solitary confinement without some damage to them,” he said. “I would think that basic human values would lead people to support this bill. But if for no other reason than self-interest — 98 percent of these people come back out to the streets of our communities. Do you want someone who’s driven to the point of becoming delusional, having violent fantasies because of prolonged solitary confinement, coming into our communities?”

‘The level of torture’

One hundred cells at the Maine State Prison in Warren are used to keep prisoners out of the general inmate population and in isolation for as many as 23 hours a day. An average of 80 prisoners are kept each day in this “Special Management Unit,” which is meant to discipline unruly prisoners or to keep guards, staff and prisoners safe.

But many, including state Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, argue that the practice of using solitary confinement can be more like torture, especially for prisoners with mental and physical illnesses, and that its use should be much more limited and regulated in Maine.

“Since Guantanamo, we keep seeing that the use of segregation and solitary confinement is not so much a treatment as a punishment and a control aspect. That just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said last week. “These confinements do rise to the level of torture, at worst. At best, they are control techniques.”




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Schatz sponsored the bill, which is aimed specifically at the Department of Corrections and not county jail facilities. It does not mince words to describe the practice of segregating prisoners.

“Solitary confinement is extreme administrative sanction with the potential to cause severe harm to life and health, particularly for people with mental and physical illnesses and disabilities,” reads the draft legislation. “Therefore, prolonged solitary confinement shall only be imposed under the most extreme circumstances, when no lesser restraints on liberty are sufficient to achieve its specified limited purposes.”

The bill instructs the Department of Corrections that its “prisoners with serious mental illness shall not be placed in SMU” and all prisoners housed in the unit would be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional at least every seven days.

It also states that prisoners could not be confined in a Special Management Unit for more than 45 days unless it’s established at a hearing that an inmate “committed or attempted to commit” an act of violence resulting in serious injury or death, an act in connection with a sexual assault or an escape or attempted escape.

“I would never be in a position to state that isolation or segregation is a technique that should never be used,” Schatz said. “We do indeed have policies, but they lack due process, and certainly do not have the type of scrutiny you’d want to have in any institutional setting.”

23 hours a day

If this strongly worded bill becomes a strongly worded law, it likely would change how things are done at the Maine State Prison. The state prison is the only facility in the Maine Department of Corrections to officially use solitary confinement — always called “segregation” — in its Special Management Unit, according to Associate Commissioner Denise Lord.

While certain cells are designated for disciplinary segregation at other correctional facilities around the state, they are used only sporadically and for a few hours at a time.

Referring to the SMU, Lord said, “It looks like a regular prison facility.”

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About half the prisoners kept in segregation are there because they are being disciplined, and those prisoners stay less than a month. The other half of the unit comprises prisoners who are “administratively segregated,” and they can stay much longer, an average of four months, she said.

“In administrative segregation, it’s been determined that you are a risk to yourself or to others,” she said. “The risk has to be reduced before you can go back into the general population.”

Lord would not speak directly about the proposed legislation, saying she hasn’t seen a final version of the bill.

“We’re going to obviously look at it carefully,” Lord said. “I don’t want to make comments without having a full understanding of what the bill represents.”

But she readily shared the policy that governs the SMU, where prisoners spend 23 hours a day alone with their thoughts, with access to books, correspondence and religious and legal materials, according to the Department of Corrections policy on “special management prisoners.”

In the remaining hour, the inmates come out for exercise, their one weekly phone call, to use showers or for scheduled “no contact” visits through a Plexiglas screen.

The present policy does not prohibit mentally ill prisoners from being placed in segregation, and all inmates in the unit see a licensed mental health worker when they are first moved there, after 30 days and then every 90 days, Lord said.

‘Crazier and crazier’

But that is simply not enough oversight of mental illness, said a Hancock County woman whose husband has been in solitary confinement since the spring and suffers from bipolar disorder and other troubles.

The woman, who requested that her name not be used, said her husband is a convicted sex offender who wanted to be transferred to Special Management Unit because he was afraid for his physical safety. Now, after months living with limited human interaction and without the solace of even a radio or television, his mental safety seems to be in question.

“The letters started getting crazier and crazier,” she said. “Where he should be is protective custody. He himself believes that you shouldn’t have radios in solitary confinement. You do need to be punished, but for a certain amount of time. This is too long.”

One of the letters written by her husband seemed to show the difficulties of isolation.

“I have moments when it feels like the next minute seems like ten years,” he wrote. “My mind is going a thousand miles per hour, sometimes going over the same old things when I get depressed and frustrated, which is often.”

Rebecca Eilers, a psychology professor at the University of Maine who specializes in development and mental health, said the amount of time spent in solitary confinement is directly related to how much damage the practice can do.

“Certainly, prolonged isolation can lead to depression, despair and something called sensory deprivation, where you have no outside stimulation. You can actually start imagining things,” she said. “That’s the problem with isolation. Human beings are social. When they don’t have someone to interact with, they tend to invent something in their minds.”

Eilers, who said she has researched isolation in mental institutions but not prisons, said she sees a big difference in the use of solitary confinement to keep someone safe and its use as a punishment.

“It seems to me that solitary doesn’t need to be punishing,” she said. “I think that it’s important that there’s some independent oversight over this issue, to see how people are faring, if they’re being placed in solitary for prolonged periods of time.”

Schatz said he hopes the bill will start a conversation about the use of isolation. He is “optimistic” that the Department of Corrections “won’t become defensive.”

“I’m convinced that they’ll be very cooperative,” he said. “These are styles of confinements that have been in place a long time. They’ve been institutionalized. We have to break that.”

Newly appointed Maine State Prison Warden Patricia Barnhart is from Michigan where segregation has legislative oversight.

“It’s got a very specific use,” she said this week.

“You have to be informed about why you’re doing what you’re doing.”