Committee vote on confinement split three ways

Posted March 04, 2010, at 8:13 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee failed to reach consensus Thursday on a bill proposing additional restrictions on the long-term isolation of inmates in Maine prisons, setting the stage for spirited debates on the House and Senate floors.

Over the past several weeks, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has heard hours of testimony on a bill that would limit the use of so-called “solitary confinement” to no longer than 45 days except for the most dangerous inmates.

The bill, LD 1611, also would prohibit the mentally ill from being placed in the state’s “special management units,” where inmates are locked up for 23 hours a day with few of the privileges offered to traditional prisoners.

On Thursday, six members of the committee voted to reject the bill while two lawmakers, including sponsor Rep. Jim Schatz of Blue Hill, supported an amended version.

Three committee members supported a third option, a resolve calling for a review of the policies regarding special management units, or SMUs.

The 3-way split makes it even more difficult to predict what will happen once the controversial legislation hits the House and Senate floors. The divided vote also left bill supporters disappointed but not without hope.

“We think any step to increase transparency and due process is a positive one,” said Alysia Melnick, public policy council for the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “We are looking for any progress on the issue, although we don’t believe a resolve goes far enough.”

Lawmakers’ comments prior to the vote illustrated the tensions and emotions surrounding the use of solitary confinement — a term that, in and of itself, is a point of contention.

Department of Corrections officials had predicted that the bill could create a more dangerous situation for both prison staff and inmates by limiting the tools available to guards. They also pointed out that segregated prisoners already have review hearings and can meet with lawyers and chaplains.

Several committee members said bill supporters never proved there were problems in Maine’s segregation units but relied largely on uncorroborated reports and allegations. They described some supporters’ testimony as reckless and even insulting to Department of Corrections employees who work in an extremely challenging environment.

“I think they are going out of their way to make sure people’s rights are being protected,” said Rep. David Burns, a Whiting Republican and Maine State Police retiree.

Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, argued that the Department of Corrections has more oversight than almost all other state departments. Sykes said he believes existing policies ensure humane treatment of inmates while holding prison employees accountable.

“The Department of Corrections is not perfect,” Sykes said. “I think they are aware of their responsibilities and I think they are aware of their imperfections.”

Other lawmakers were less equivocal.

Committee co-chair Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she had serious concerns about the bill but said the lengthy discussion and exploration has been fruitful. Haskell proposed the resolve requesting additional reviews of the policies within the SMUs.

“You brought us a tremendous amount of information and depth of knowledge that we did not have before,” Haskell said.

Sen. Stanley Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who visited Maine State Prison segregation units last weekend during an unannounced visit, said he could not vote for a measure that he feared could cause more harm than good. Gerzofsky ultimately supported the resolve, arguing every institution can be improved with additional transparency.

But Schatz and bill supporters argued that long-term isolation — particularly for mentally ill inmates — can cause permanent psychological harm to prisoners, most of whom will ultimately be released to the general public.

Schatz said he will talk with other bill supporters about the resolve proposal.

“Right now, I’m stubborn enough that I would like to stay with the bill as amended, but I might be persuaded,” he said.

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