AUGUSTA, Maine — The head of Maine’s prison system predicted that a bill limiting the use of so-called solitary confinement or segregation units would merely increase the risks of injury or death to both inmates and correctional officers.
Proponents of the measure, meanwhile, said locking up prisoners 23 hours a day for potentially weeks or months at a time oftentimes does more harm than good.
“It doesn’t keep society safer, it doesn’t keep guards safer and it doesn’t keep inmates any safer. So what is the point?” asked Dr. Janis Petzel, president of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians.
Lawmakers heard more than seven hours of testimony Wednesday on a bill, LD 1611, which would limit stays in what the state calls “special management units” to 45 days. Prisoners who commit or attempt to commit sexual assault, attempt to escape or behave violently could remain isolated in these units for longer than 45 days, but only after a special hearing.
Bill sponsor Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, praised correctional officers for doing “a very difficult job with inadequate resources.” The bill, he said, is aimed at guaranteeing due process to inmates.
But Marty Magnusson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, predicted the bill would create more dangerous situations by forcing the release of dangerous inmates into the general prison population or into mental health facilities.
Magnusson also decried provisions in the bill prohibiting officers from employing restraint chairs that immobilize the hands and legs of extremely uncooperative inmates.
“I’ve been around a long time and I can honestly say that I have not seen legislation that would be more harmful to our employees and the inmates within our facilities,” Magnusson told members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Currently, prisoners placed within the special management units can be isolated for as much as 23 hours a day, although they continue to have access to books, correspondence and religious or legal materials. They are also entitled to two hours of weekly visits and three telephone calls.
Magnusson estimated that 96 percent of inmates segregated for disciplinary reasons spend less than 45 days there, while 93 percent of those in SMU for administrative reasons do less than 45 days. Magnusson acknowledged that a few prisoners are kept in segregation for more than a year, however.
“In some cases, special management is the only measure to protect human life,” he said.
Several correctional officers from the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham objected to use of the phrase “solitary confinement,” which they said evokes images of prisoners tossed into “a hole” with no outside contact. They also expressed concerns that the legislation would reduce their abilities to safely handle unstable, violent inmates.
“Please, don’t take the tools of managing and helping deal with these egregious criminals … away from us, making our jobs even more unsafe than they already are,” said Zack Matthews, representing one of the unions for correctional officers.
Bill supporters, however, said the bill allows segregation, just with additional oversight.
Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts psychiatrist specializing in the psychological effects of solitary confinement, described the isolation and lack of stimulation as “toxic to mental functioning.”
“They become a greater danger to the security staff and they become an enormous danger when they are released to the community,” he said.
Convicted domestic terrorist Raymond Luc Levasseur of Waldo, who spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement as part of a larger sentence for his role in a series of protest bombings in the 1970s, described it as “prison within a prison.” Levasseur said the mentally ill and unstable inmates suffer first but it takes a toll on everyone.
“We are all scarred,” he said. “No one is going to do any prolonged isolation without being hurt or scarred in some way.”