Clergy urge solitary confinement limits

Posted Feb. 23, 2010, at 9:15 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Religious leaders from throughout Maine urged lawmakers on Tuesday to pass legislation limiting use of solitary confinement in state prisons, calling long-term isolation of inmates harmful to both the prisoners and society.

“While there are those who must be separated to prevent them from doing harm, even in those cases our primary goal should be their healing and rehabilitation,” said the Rev. Richard Snyder, academic dean of the Bangor Theological Seminary.

Snyder and nearly a dozen other ministers and a rabbi came to the State House three days before a legislative committee begins work sessions on what is shaping up to be one of the more controversial bills of the legislative session.

LD 1611, as written, would not prohibit the practice of segregating prisoners for up to 23 hours a day in what the state calls “special management units.” But the bill would restrict stays in such a unit to 45 days or less except in cases where prisoners committed or attempted to commit acts of violence, including sexual assault, or attempted to escape.

The Rev. Richard Killmer, a Yarmouth resident who serves as executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said he believes passage of LD 1611 could set a precedent for other states to follow.

“Many people of faith support the bill because prisoners are human beings who deserve not to be harmed but to be helped as they prepare for a return to society,” Killmer said.

The potential mental health effects of long-term isolation have been a focal point in the debate over Maine’s policies. The legislation would slip also require regular visits by mental health professionals and proposes to prohibit mentally ill prisoners from being placed in segregation units.

Prisoners placed within the special management units now 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 weekly visits and telephone calls.

Department of Corrections officials and correctional officers have criticized the use of the phrase “solitary confinement,” saying it conjures false images of prisoners being tossed into dark holes with no contact. Rather, inmates in SMUs have regular contact with guards, mental health workers, lawyers, chaplains and others, cor-rections officials have said.

Marc Mutty, director of public affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, acknowledged that he and other bill supporters do not know whether solitary confinement is being used excessively in Maine prisons.

But Mutty called on lawmakers on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has legislative oversight of the corrections system, to exercise their “due diligence” and find out what is happening.

Eric Smith, associate director of the Maine Council of Churches, said bill supporters want to see the proposed limitations put into statute to ensure they are followed.

“It does not serve the interests of society nor of prison staff and certainly not of prisoners to push them beyond an emotional precipice from which they cannot recover,” Smith said.

The bill by Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, also would ban even temporary use of so-called “restraint chairs” that immobilize prisoners’ arms and legs.

That provision has generated staunch opposition from prison guards, who said restraint chairs are sometimes the only way to safely secure prisoners who pose serious threats to themselves and guards.

Smith acknowledged that there are differing opinions even among bill supporters about use of the restraint chair. But the Maine Council of Churches regards the restraint chair as problematic because of the potential for misuse.

The Criminal Justice Committee is scheduled to hold a work session on LD 1611 at 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26.

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