AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers approved a gutted version of a bill dealing with the long-term isolation of inmates in prison on Monday after lengthy debate.
As originally introduced, LD 1611 would have prohibited the placement of mentally ill prisoners in so-called “solitary confinement” and would have restricted prison officials’ ability to isolate all but the most dangerous inmates for longer than 45 days.
But the bill ran into staunch opposition, most notably from corrections officials and guards who predicted the new restrictions would make prisons more dangerous for both inmates and staff.
After lengthy debate on Monday, the House tossed out the most substantive aspects of the bill and, instead, passed a resolve essentially seeking additional information on inmates housed in what the state calls its “special management units.” The Senate later voted 18-15 to approve the same version, sending it back to the House for one last vote.
The resolve directs corrections officials to work with a mental health and substance abuse focus group to review the due process procedures for prisoners within special management units and report back to the Legislature next year.
“I think we can always strive to make some improvements,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, a Portland Democrat who was author of the resolve. “I think we can always use more oversight.”
Advocates for the original bill expressed dismay saying the watered-down version passed by both chambers failed to tackle potential constitutional issues associated with long-term isolation.
“We are disappointed that the Legislature didn’t act today to address the human rights and security problems of solitary confinement here in Maine,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union.
Rep. James Schatz’s bill to restrict the use of solitary confinement in Maine prisons has become one of the hot-button issues of the legislative session.
Prisoners placed within the special management units are isolated for as much as 23 hours a day. They have access to books, correspondence and religious or legal materials and are entitled to weekly visits and telephone calls.
Corrections officials have said that more than 90 percent of inmates placed in the special management units for disciplinary or administrative reasons spend fewer than 45 days in them, although some have been there for several years.
Schatz, D-Blue Hill, and the bill’s supporters contend that isolating prisoners for 23 hours a day with minimal contact with others for weeks, months or years on end causes more psychological harm than good.
The harm can be exacerbated when the inmate already suffers from mental illness, said supporters, who pointed out that 43 inmates have been released to the public directly from the special management units in recent years.
“These people indeed do leave the institution,” Schatz said. “Unless we can work with them in the institution to make them a safer individual, they are going to come back home and create more problems.”
But opponents said LD 1611 proposes to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and could make conditions worse by restricting a valuable tool for guards. They also said the review proposed by Haskell is unnecessary.
Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, was among several lawmakers who described both Schatz’s original bill and the resolve as an insult to Maine State Prison employees and corrections officials who do extremely difficult jobs for relatively low pay.
“It’s an insult to the state of Maine and it’s a slap in the face to those employees in the Department of Corrections … who quite frankly put their lives on the line every shift,” Sykes said.
Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, said he has been approached by many Maine State Prison guards who live within his district, all of whom urged him to oppose the bill. Mazurek also called on his colleagues to give the Warren prison’s new warden, Patricia Barnhart, time to institute her own plans for improving conditions at the facility.
“Let’s give this person a chance to do her job and let’s support the people who work there,” Mazurek said.