POLL QUESTION

PBS documentary to explore Maine State Prison’s recent efforts at reform

Posted April 12, 2017, at 12:01 p.m.
Last modified April 12, 2017, at 4:58 p.m.

Poll Question

Filmmaker Dan Edge has spent the better part of three years in prison, but he’s never been convicted of a crime.

Since 2014, Edge, with his filmmaking partner Lauren Mucciolo, has been embedded in three- to four-week stints in the Maine State Prison in Warren, documenting the lives of the inmates kept in solitary confinement and the prison’s efforts to dramatically reduce its use.

The footage has been used to make two documentaries: 2014’s “Solitary Nation” and, now, 2017’s “Last Days of Solitary,” which is set to air on PBS “Frontline” at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 18. It’s an unflinching, often harrowing look at this controversial form of punishment and at the lives of inmates as they transition out of it. The footage is often graphic and bloody but shows the reality of those kept in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison.

“I’m still shocked by what we saw, going into that kind of environment, even after years of doing it,” Edge said, speaking by phone from London. “You do eventually become desensitized to it, to the violence and trauma, but then you go back to edit and you realize how extraordinarily harrowing it is — especially for the officers and for the inmates.”

Both documentaries follow five inmates kept at various points in solitary, ranging from Todd Fickett, who was arrested for arson, to Richard Stahursky, who notoriously murdered another inmate after being released from solitary into general population in the prison. All the inmates stories and interviews are complex and often difficult to watch, following them from their time in solitary, back into the greater prison community — and in same cases back into the real world after serving their sentences.

With “Last Days of Solitary,” however, the film shows how the Maine State Prison has become a leader in efforts nationwide to change the ways prisons are run — specifically in the use of solitary confinement, defined as a form of imprisonment, in which an inmate is kept isolated from human contact for up to 24 hours per day. It’s effectiveness has long been questioned, and it is shown to have severe, generally adverse psychological effects on those who are subjected to it.

“Prison is often a traumatic and terrifying place, and it’ll never be an easy place to be, but there are people at the Maine State Prison that are actively trying to make it less so,” Edge said.

Those individuals include former Maine State Prison warden Rodney Bouffard, current Maine Commissioner of Corrections Joseph Fitzpatrick and former commissioner Joseph Ponte, who initiated many of the changes that have occurred at the prison and who is now the commissioner for the City of New York Department of Corrections.

“In a way, this has been an experiment, to see whether or not a prison can wean itself off what has been an addiction to solitary confinement,” Edge said. “There are more people in the U.S. in solitary than in any other country in the world. In Maine, they’ve cut the number of inmates in solitary down from over 100 to about seven or eight. … I think in the reporting we’ve done, you can now see, several years down the line, that you can change and run a prison without resorting to solitary.”

Edge and Mucciolo hope to track the lives of the five Maine State Prison inmates they’ve been following for years to come, even after they are released from prison. They also hope to track the rates of how solitary confinement is used nationally and how it might increase or decrease. Since the Maine State Prison began its reduction effort in 2013, 29 other states have also begun experimenting with reforms aimed at reduction.

“Prisons are an intense and traumatic environment to film and work in, but we’ll return to it,” Edge said. “I think what’s been lacking in journalism and in academia are really long term projects, that go back after five years, 10 years, 15 years, exploring what works over a period of time like that and what happens to people as time passes.”

“Last Days of Solitary,” filmed entirely at the Maine State Prison and in Maine, will be screened at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, on “Frontline” on PBS.

CORRECTION:

This article referred to the documentary as “The Last Days of Solitary.” The actual title is “Last Days of Solitary.”

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