50 gather to learn about solitary confinement

Posted Feb. 18, 2010, at 10:45 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — More than 50 people gathered Wednesday night at the Belfast Free Library to learn more about the practice of solitary confinement for prison inmates.

Many wanted to find out what they could do to sway Maine lawmakers against the practice.

A bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement units in the state is working its way through the Legislature.

Although the bill’s opponents say that limiting the use of special management units would be dangerous for both inmates and correctional officers, the crowd that turned out for the film and discussion sponsored by the Peace and Justice Group of Waldo County seemed to be overwhelmingly for LD 1611.

“I think we gave people a little bit of hope in terms of talking about problems with prisons in the state,” said Larry Dansinger of the Peace and Justice Group. “There’s hope for at least starting the process of getting people to be treated more humanely.”

Bill opponents, including state Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson, say that it would force the release of dangerous inmates into the general prison population or into mental health facilities.

Magnusson testified Wednesday at a hearing on the bill, saying that he has not seen legislation that would be more harmful to the department’s employees and inmates.

But the evening’s featured speaker, Raymond Luc Levasseur, emphasized a different kind of safety. Most prisoners ultimately get released and some have gone straight from isolation units to the streets, he said.

“These policies make our communities less safe and secure,” Levasseur said.

The former federal prisoner and current Waldo resident spent more than a decade in solitary confinement while serving a sentence for his role in a series of protest bombings in the 1970s.

He encouraged attendees to contact their local representatives to let them know that they support the bill, and seemed heartened that Rep. Andrew O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, was in the audience. O’Brien said that he has been lobbied by a prison guard who is against the bill and hadn’t yet heard from the other side.

“Folks in corrections are really pushing back against this,” O’Brien said, adding that he is scheduled to visit the Maine State Prison in Warren next week. “I’m just basically out to get more informed.”

The bill would limit stays in the state’s special management units to 45 days and would prohibit “seriously” mentally ill prisoners from being placed there, Levasseur said.

“This bill doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion,” he said. “I think it’s like putting a bandage on a sucking chest wound. But it does something.”

Harold Vine of Belfast said after the presentation that he thought that community education on the matter is “absolutely crucial.”

“I sense that enormous numbers of people are unaware of this,” he said. “Unfortunately as a society, we are too much about money and power. Where is our compassion?”

BDN writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

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