ACLU touts solitary confinement reforms in Maine, urges changes nationwide

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted March 11, 2013, at 7:31 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A long campaign to reform and reduce the use of solitary confinement in Maine has led to dramatic improvements in the way prisoners are treated, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“Solitary confinement is dangerous, cruel and costly,” Zachary Heiden of the ACLU of Maine wrote Monday in a press release about “Change is Possible: A Case Study Of Solitary Confinement Reform In Maine.” “Thankfully, a movement to reform solitary is growing quickly, and we are hopeful that other states and the federal government will join Maine in making changes that benefit everyone.”

The ACLU of Maine, the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, and others worked closely with Maine Department of Corrections officials to implement the reforms in Maine. The group indicated in the release that it will submit the report on Tuesday to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and urge the organization to investigate the use of solitary confinement nationwide.

Since 2010, after legislative reform took hold in Maine, the state Department of Corrections sends fewer people to solitary confinement — or the special management unit, as it is known here. According to the ACLU report, prisoners who are sent to solitary confinement spend less time there, are held in better conditions with access to more care and services, and are given a clear path for earning their way out of solitary.

In February 2010, 91 prisoners were held in Maine’s two special management unit pods. In May 2011, one pod was closed, and new policies governing the operation of the remaining solitary confinement section were put into effect. A little more than a year later, 46 prisoners were held there. That’s a sharp reduction, according to Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

“The policies have made a huge difference,” she said Monday afternoon. “There are more humane conditions. Of course, nothing is ever as we’d want it to be in a perfect facility, but it is so much better than we could ever have dreamed it would become.”

In the past, prisoners who were sent to Maine State Prison’s special management unit were isolated in an 86-square-foot cell for 23 hours per day during the week, and 24 hours per day on the weekend. Prisoners could be sent there for a variety of reasons, including breaking the prison rules, being a new inmate or being attacked by another inmate. They also could be sent to the unit any other time prison staff wanted to isolate inmates.

“Other than fleeting interactions with corrections staff, prisoners had no human contact during their stays in the SMU — which could last days, weeks, months or even years,” the report noted.

After years of effort, the Maine Legislature passed a resolve in April 2010 to direct the Department of Corrections to ensure transparencies in policy and to coordinate due process procedures in cases of solitary confinement. A focus group worked “extremely diligently” to identify problems and make recommendations about the special management unit.

“The group’s conclusions were shocking in their thoroughness and honesty,” the ACLU of Maine report stated.

Among them:

• The administration should keep the beds of prisoners sent to solitary confinement open to ensure that when they are ready to be released, there is a place for them in general population.

• The administration should have flexibility in relaxing the conditions of confinement, including increased human contact, out-of-cell time and access to therapy, when prisoners in the special management unit have mental health concerns.

Garvey shared part of a letter from a Maine State Prison inmate who said that he has benefited from the improvement of the “harsh conditions” there.

“I experienced first hand the horrible conditions and treatment,” he wrote. “That building will always have problems, but compared to several years ago, the place has completely turned around.”

But not everyone is in favor of the changes. Jim Mackie, the union representative for employees at the Maine State Prison and the Bolduc Correctional Center in Warren, said that the solitary confinement reform is not making it safer for the guards.

“Segregation as a tool is not a bad thing,” he said. “I’m happy for the ACLU that they’re happy … but I want them to go inside and work for a year as a guard. It’s one thing to sit on the outside and do these wonderful little reports. They should strap on the uniform, go inside, go face to face with the inmates. These are not the nicest people in Maine that our guys and girls are having to face every day in this place.”

Commissioner Joseph Ponte said Monday that he doesn’t think it has been a “perfect change” but that it marks a big departure from a national prison culture that tended to segregate prisoners for all kinds of reasons.

He discusses the reforms in an audio file accompanying the report on the ACLU of Maine website at www.aclumaine.org/changeispossible.

Maine prisoners still get sent to the special management unit when they need to be segregated, the commissioner said Monday, but now staff is required to examine why they were sent there and have a plan for them to leave.

“It’s a lot of trying to get people in as safe situations as we can have them and get them as much freedom as possible,” Ponte said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/03/11/news/state/aclu-touts-solitary-confinement-reforms-in-maine-urges-changes-nationwide/ printed on July 10, 2014