WARREN, Maine — The segregation unit at the Maine State Prison is getting to be an empty place.
In the last three weeks, the new Maine Department of Corrections administration has cut the use of solitary confinement from about 90 percent capacity to about 40 percent. There are about 100 beds used for solitary confinement in the supermax.
“It’s very deliberate,” said DOC associate commissioner Jody Breton. “Most people do better not isolated. Unless there is a need — for safety or security for themselves, for others or for the safe operation of the prison — we try very hard to get them back to a normal living condition.”
Before, prisoners could remain in the small, lonely cells without human contact for weeks, even months. Now if a prisoner is going to stay in solitary confinement for more than 72 hours, corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte must be notified.
“I got a letter [from an inmate] last week who said he’s been in solitary for years with just a few months back out in general population. This man maybe has great problems in general population. The new commissioner now is trying to find new solutions to that,” said Judy Garvey, co-coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “They’ll continue to use solitary at Maine State Prison, but now they are talking about using it for hours — not days or months.”
The changes were spurred after a report by mental health professionals and Department of Corrections staff released in March said that instead of using solitary confinement — which is the most expensive type of imprisonment, because it requires more staff — privileges should be taken away to discipline inmates for bad behavior.
In segregation, prisoners have no privileges. In general population — which now has about 700 inmates in the Warren prison — prisoners get some free time.
“They’re out of their cells during some hours. They have access to the campus, which includes education, recreation. They can go back to work in the kitchen, the grounds, whatever. Unless you’re in segregation. Then you’re locked up,” said DOC director of operations Ralph Nichols.
The 25-page report said that moving inmates from solitary to general population has created problems before.
Because quickly moving so many people from the solitary confinement area into general population would have caused a heavy influx of prisoners into the general population, steps were taken to use beds in other correctional facilities.
“[There] was a delay in the ability of inmates to leave the [segregation unit] when they were behaviorally ready or had completed ‘their sentence.’ A shortage of bed space to move them out prevented a timely departure.”
Another major change in the prison system recently helps address that, according to Nichols. Lower-security prisoners are being moved to other facilities which are more rehabilitative.
“Most of these places are readying people for their release,” Nichols said. This includes the Bolduc Correctional Facility, which is minimum security and helps prisoners make the transition back into civilian life.
“You’re seeing populations going up at Bolduc [and] the Women’s Center. It’s very deliberate on our part,” said Breton.
The movements likely will transfer into savings for the state.
“Those beds are much less expensive ” at the lower-security prison centers, Breton said. Plus, “they can move around, they can pay public restitution. You get a lot of community programs going on. It helps with the social parts of life.”
The Department of Corrections tracks prisoner populations and posts them weekly online. Recent population reports made it seem like the Maine State Prison was indeed crowded.
The May 23 report said only eight beds were free in general population. The most recent report, dated May 31, said 18 beds were open in general population. Last year, these available bed numbers were higher. The recent decrease in available beds is directly related to all the prisoners who are now not in solitary confinement.
But no one should be alarmed, Breton said. What the population reports don’t say is that the Maine State Prison has 64 cells that are unused and not listed on the reports. If the prison needed extra beds, it would just open that wing of the prison.
The prisoner advocates are optimistic about the changes.
“We’re amazed, really. Amazed — while holding our breath,” said Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “We’re amazed because the way the whole thing has emerged after LD 1611 it was almost as if people said it didn’t matter if people were harmed or tortured. But here we are now with the people who work with the inmates saying we need a better way.”
LD 1611 was “An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners” and it did not result in legislation, but did end up producing the report that suggested the solitary confinement changes.