Unlocking the mystery of prisons

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 9:02 p.m.

In 1989 I took a tour of the old Maine State Prison as part of a story I was doing on a $35 million bond issue for the construction of a state-of-the-art prison to replace the century-old behemoth brick building in the center of Thomaston.

As part of my tour I was led down to the building’s basement, a dark, dingy hallway lined with small cells meant for one prisoner but crammed with two because of crowding problems.

The lighting was dim. It was in all honesty not much more than a dirt pit with bars, cots and toilets.

It was solitary confinement.

The prisoners confined to those cells stayed there 23 hours a day, with one hour allowed for recreation.

As then-Corrections Commissioner Don Allen led me along that frightening and disturbing hallway, I glanced in at the men who lived there.

In the last cell on the block stood a tall, skinny man named John Lane.

For those of you who weren’t around here then or who may not remember, in 1984 John Lane put 4-year-old Angela Palmer into an oven inside the family’s Auburn apartment and burned her to death.

I remember climbing the stairs from that dungeon-like hole and emerging into the light thinking that John Lane was in a most appropriate spot.

Although still controversial, solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison is not quite as physically grim as it was in those days. Prisoners there are still confined for 23 hours a day, however, and use of solitary as either a punitive or safety tool is about to be debated among legislators thanks to a bill sponsored by Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill.

Two key requirements in the bill are that prison officials would have to issue a written decision explaining why solitary confinement was ordered, and, after 72 hours, the prisoner’s status would have to be reviewed.

Officials involved in this debate have noted that many who are sent into solitary confinement exhibit mental illness symptoms, and leaving them alone exacerbates the condition.

The bill also instructs the Corrections Department that prisoners with serious mental illness should not be placed in segregation and all prisoners housed in the unit would be evaluated by a licensed mental health professional at least every seven days.

So here’s my question: Should people with “serious mental illness” be in the prison in the first place?

And since they are, when they become violent toward themselves or pose a serious risk of injury or death to other inmates and staff and no other “licensed mental health facility” is willing to take them, exactly what should the prison staff be doing with them?

While the state is preparing to make across-the-board cuts to the tune of $90 million from its mental health budget, where exactly are these “licensed mental health professionals” going to come from who are going to evaluate segregated prisoners every seven days.

Segregation may not be humane. It certainly is not a humane way to treat people afflicted with mental illness. Confining them to jail because the state has no better way to care for them is not humane either. Allowing them to wander homeless with no one to help monitor their medications is not humane either.

This state decided decades ago that institutionalization of those with mental illness was inhumane and that they should be cared for through community-based programs.

The buzzword was “deinstitutionalization.”

Guess what. A major portion of mentally ill residents are still institutionalized. They are just kept behind bars in county jails and state prisons instead of mental health facilities. They are tended to by prison guards instead of doctors and nurses.

Are those the lucky ones? Ask Dennis Marble, director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, what percentage of his clients are suffering from severe mental illness. The lucky ones, he’ll tell you, are the ones who find room at his shelter. Others are sleeping under bridges and on park benches.

Humane?

I don’t mean to be critical of Rep. Schatz’s attempt to bring more humanity and accountability to the prison’s segregation system. It’s an admirable cause. I am sure there are many flaws to be poked at there.

I don’t mean to be critical of those who wish to empower the people suffering from mental illness by giving them more rights and freedom.

I have empathy and hope for those who struggle with mental disease and their family members as well. I want only the best for them, but I still don’t want them to hurt me or anyone else.

I feel no sympathy when I think back to 1989 and remember John Lane behind those bars in that dingy, dirty hallway. Perhaps that’s inhumane of me.

I admit it.

Deinstitutionalization may have been an admirable ideal. Listening to the family members, the clients themselves and those in law enforcement who today find themselves forced to be more mental health worker than cop or prison guard, perhaps it’s time to say that it was a well-meaning plan that failed.

Is community-based mental health treatment affordable and effective or not? Maybe someone needs to dare to stand up and ask that politically incorrect question.

Perhaps that would be the humane place to start.

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