WARREN, Maine — Documentary TV producer Dan Edge said that his crew has a lot of experience shooting footage in dangerous places like war zones.
Recently, they got more experience like that right here in Maine, when journalists from PBS/Frontline spent weeks embedded in the solitary confinement unit at Maine State Prison while shooting the new documentary “Solitary Nation.” The hourlong film debuted last week as the first installment of Frontline’s “Locked Up In America” two-part series.
“This was like a battle scene in some ways,” Edge said Friday in a telephone interview from England. “I’d done plenty of research before we got there about the way solitary confinement can affect inmates, but on a visceral level, no — me and my team were not prepared to see that much blood.”
In the film, distressed inmates sliced open their veins, flooding their small cells with blood. One angry, frustrated inmate threatened the lives of many people, including Warden Rodney Bouffard. Nervous teenaged inmates mentally broke down during solitary confinement. Others stopped up their toilets, flooding the whole unit with feces and urine. And guards tried to peaceably talk prisoners out of harming themselves.
“It was tough on us. Tough on the officers,” Edge said. “Yes, solitary confinement takes a great psychological toll on the inmates. It also takes a psychological toll on the officers.”
The filmmaker had grown interested in American prison issues after making a documentary a few years ago about veterans returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, some of whom ended up in prison in Colorado. Edge stayed in touch with the corrections department in that state, where Tom Clements, head of the department, had made reforming solitary confinement a big priority.
“He said this is a ticking timebomb. We have to change this,” Edge said. “Tragically, [Clements] was murdered at his home by an inmate who had spent nine years in solitary.”
After Clements was killed last March by the former inmate, Edge felt compelled to make a movie about solitary confinement, and approached Joseph Ponte, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, to see if he could gain access here.
Maine recently has made national headlines because of the state’s efforts to reform solitary confinement, called the special management unit. Legislative reform that passed in 2010 has meant that fewer people in Maine are sent to solitary confinement. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union that was released last year said that Maine 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.
“We’d like to profile the changes and see if it’s successful,” Edge said. “Although there’s a growing debate over the issue, hardly anyone knows what it’s actually like.”
Scott Fish, a spokesperson for the department, said Thursday that the warden and Acting Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, who was named to the position last month, were both unavailable for comment about the documentary. However, the reaction he’s heard about the documentary had so far been largely positive.
“It was breaking trail for the prison and for the department,” Fish said. “I’m sure that at some point we folks will sit down and talk about it. What we did right, and what we might have done differently.”
Ponte wanted people to know about the good things happening in the department of corrections, he said.
“I think the segregation unit is what it is. It’s not a nice place,” Fish said. “But now people have the opportunity to see it, and maybe a discussion will open up about it.”
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said that it is “gratifying” to see the changes in how inmates in solitary confinement are being treated.
“It’s better than it was,” he said. “When I saw the documentary, I saw that people who really needed help were there. I saw a lot of treatment going on. I saw psychiatrists treating people. I saw people being separated, not isolated. I saw [Warden] Rod Bouffard spend a lot of time and anguish thinking, ‘How can we get this guy back to general population?’ To me, that’s encouraging. I was happy to see we’ve changed.”
Jim Bergin of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said that he had watched the documentary with interest — and so had some of the inmates he met with last week in a group session at the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth.
“What they got was the reality,” he said of the filmmakers. “It shows the stark reality of what goes on in prisons, particularly prisons within prisons … In some ways, it amazes us that they let Frontline in. Prisons are closed systems. They don’t really like that kind of transparency. We’d never witnessed the kinds of events they showed on film.”
He said three of the inmates he met with last week in Ellsworth had spent time in segregation at Maine State Prison. Those guys shared some of their own stories about the cutting, the bad behaviors and the yelling. They told Bergin that they would unravel the elastic from their socks to use as a sling to send written messages back and forth under the cell doors. And one man said that he survived his time in solitary because he made friends with a couple of the ants on his window.
“Some guys get in there, they lose it. They don’t have a focus on anything other than the fact that they’re really miserable and upset,” he said. “The guy with the ants studied the ants. He had that as a focus.”
Bergin suggested that Maine needs more prisoner rehabilitation and much less solitary confinement, in no small part because most inmates eventually are released and go back into society.
But Jim Mackie, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees who represents state prison guards, said that the recent changes and reduction of solitary confinement in Maine have put guards at risk.
“It really destroyed the morale in our facilities,” Mackie said, pointing out some of the recent violent murders that have taken place in Maine State Prison. “I think it became very hazardous to work there under the last commissioner.”
Edge said that he is glad that his film has added a dimension to the conversation about solitary confinement. After the crew was in the unit for a few days, he said that they became “practically invisible” to the inmates and what viewers see is a true reflection of life in solitary.
“What it boils down to is what are our prisons for? Are they there simply to punish? Or are they there to make us safer long term?” he asked. “I hope that if there’s one effect of this, it’s that what the warden is trying to do is also tried across the country. He’s trying to move his prison system and the system in general in a good direction.”