Maine Department of Corrections, ACLU of Maine submit testimony to hearing on solitary confinement

Posted June 19, 2012, at 7:13 p.m.
Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte
Michael C. York | BDN
Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte Buy Photo

The Maine Department of Corrections and the ACLU of Maine submitted testimony to a congressional committee that held a hearing Tuesday about reassessing the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a two-hour hearing Tuesday morning, receiving testimony from state corrections commissioners, doctors and a former prisoner.

Maine is one of several states that have cut back on their use of solitary confinement. Maine calls this practice “segregation.” The Maine State Prison in Warren has a wing devoted to segregation called Special Management Unit, or SMU.

In the Maine State Prison, SMU is where prisoners are sent for violating rules or for violent behavior, such as assaulting another prisoner or guard. Inmates can also be sent to SMU for their own protection or the protection of others. There, they spend 23 hours a day in a cell by themselves, only to be let out for a shower and one hour of exercise.

The Maine Department of Corrections changed its policy regarding segregation last year. It now houses only about 35 to 45 inmates at any one time. Before the change, SMU was typically full at 139 beds. Under the old system, a prisoner’s stay in SMU typically lasted about six months. Now it can last as little as a few days.

“What do prisons say about us and our values?” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, chairman of the subcommittee, asked during the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement.

Durbin said 2.3 million people in the United States are in prison.

“This is by far the highest per capita rate in the world,” he said. He noted that 50 percent of all prison suicides happen in segregation.

“We have 5 percent of the world’s population, and yet 25 percent of the world’s inmates,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. “I think we have to take a really hard look at our criminal justice system and we need to make serious reforms.”

The ACLU of Maine submitted testimony against the use of segregation, including statements from several doctors.

“The impact of this lack of human contact was clear. Prisoners frequently exhibited symptoms of serious mental illness, even in cases when no symptoms had previously manifested,” the ACLU of Maine said in its report to the subcommittee.

“In some cases, prisoners were released straight out of the Special Management Unit onto the streets of Maine communities. Because of the destabilizing effects of isolation, releasing someone back into life on the ‘outside’ abruptly and with no support leads to difficulty for both the former prisoner and the community,” also said the report.

The Maine Department of Corrections had not disclosed its congressional testimony to the Bangor Daily News as of Tuesday evening.

Durbin said he has toured prisons in his home state of Illinois and recognizes a need for change.

“It’s an issue we kind of knew in the back of our minds was there, but we didn’t like to look at it. It makes us feel bad,” said Durbin. “We think about the victims of crime. And they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, it might be tough in that cell, but my daughter’s not alive today.’ We’ve heard that one, haven’t we? You think about the correctional officers who want to come home at night to their families.

“We can have a just society and we can be humane in the process,” Durbin continued. “We can punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of justice, but we don’t have to cross that line. It’s time for us to step back, and let’s be smart, let’s be thoughtful.”

Durbin also pointed to the financial benefits of taking prisoners out of segregation who didn’t have to be there.

In Illinois last year, it cost $61,522 to keep a prisoner in solitary confinement compared to $22,000 a year for prisoners in general population.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said it costs $124 per day per inmate in general population. That number is significantly higher in SMU because of added guards, but he couldn’t say exactly how much higher.

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