May 25, 2018
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Solitary Pitfalls

Part of the role of incarceration is to rehabilitate offenders, but some of the strategies prison officials rely on to control and further punish inmates may be roiling, not easing their eventual re-entry into society.

Solitary confinement is one example.

Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, has proposed a bill that would modify the way Maine’s Department of Corrections uses solitary confinement. The bill, now in resolve form as LR 2289, would build some steps into the process by which prison officials put inmates into solitary. “It brings some due process on the scene,” he said. “It creates a criteria for the various uses.”

Solitary confinement might be seen as the prison version of the “timeout” technique parents use with their toddlers. Prisons use solitary to protect inmates from others, and to protect others from them. It is also used as punishment when prisoners break rules. But Rep. Schatz believes solitary con-finement has been abused in Maine facilities. He holds a master’s degree in correctional administration and worked in Colorado with offenders after their release from prison. From his experiences, he believes it damages self-esteem and leaves prisoners with deep-seated anger.

“If you have some problems interacting with people, or living with yourself, [those problems] are going to be magnified” by solitary confinement, he said. “You start believing you’re not a good person.” That poor self-image often leads to further antisocial behavior, not less.

Two key requirements in the bill are that prison officials would have to issue a written decision explaining why solitary confinement was ordered, and after 72 hours, the prisoner’s status would have to be reviewed. Many who are sent into solitary confinement exhibit mental illness symptoms, and leaving them alone exacerbates the condition.

A prisoner’s right to appeal or challenge the solitary order also would be created by the bill, and a 45-day maximum would be established for the confinement. Rep. Schatz also believes solitary confinement is not used consistently from prisoner to prisoner, and from facility to facility. The bill would establish more consistency.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see it eliminated,” he said, because it is based in a more punitive philosophy rather than a treatment approach. He admits that will be a tough sell in the Legislature. Labeling an opponent as “soft on crime” is often an easy way to win in electoral politics.

But with a new warden taking over the Maine State Prison in Warren, there is an opportunity to review and revise some old practices with an eye to adopting what works, and jettisoning that which does not.

LR 2289 is worth serious consideration, with its ultimate value being measured by its capacity to reduce the rate of reoffense.

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