It’s encouraging that the president and Department of Justice realize that reliance on solitary confinement in federal prisons is inhumane and ineffective. Maine came to the same conclusion several years ago and has significantly reduced the use of solitary confinement, also called segregation, at the Maine State Prison.
In an OpEd in The Washington Post last week, President Barack Obama announced that he had signed executive orders to limit federal prisons’ use of solitary confinement, which he called “an affront to our common humanity.” The reforms include limiting solitary confinement to 60 days, prohibiting its use as punishment for minor in-prison offenses and using alternative housing units for mentally ill inmates who need to be kept away from the general population.
As many as 100,000 adult prisoners are held in solitary confinement per year in federal and state prisons. Some remain in a small cell with little to no human contact for months, although more than a century’s worth of research has shown that this isolation has long-lasting psychological effects. Prisoners who were held in solitary confinement are at an elevated risk of suicide, even long after they leave prison.
After pressure from advocates — including the threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union — and a list of recommended changes from a legislatively mandated task force in 2011, corrections officials in Maine decided to reduce the use of solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
The Department of Corrections made the criteria for sending a prisoner to the special management unit more restrictive. The corrections commissioner would have to clear any decision to keep a prisoner in the unit for more than three days. The department trained every staff member on techniques for better communication with prisoners and fellow staff.
Conditions in the special management unit also changed. Prisoners used to be held in isolation for 23 hours a day with virtually no human contact. Now, depending on behavior, they are outside of their cells at least 10 hours a week. They participate in prison programming, which includes yoga, college courses and self-improvement classes; some have completed GEDs while in the segregation unit. A structured living unit, which requires skills courses and in-prison work opportunities, helps transition prisoners back to the general population.
Violence and prisoner misbehavior have decreased, as have injuries and workers compensation claims among prison employees.
Currently, the special management unit houses between 40 and 45 prisoners at a time, many for short periods of time. It has not held more than its maximum of 49 for at least two years. It had held between 110 and 120 at any one time before the reforms. The Department of Corrections has converted one of the three SMU pods to a mental health unit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine chronicles Maine’s work to reduce the use of solitary confinement in a report titled “ Change Is Possible.” It shows that change happened not because of state law revisions but because leadership within the Department of Corrections, namely then-Commissioner Joseph Ponte, understood that it was necessary. Ponte is now New York City’s corrections commissioner. His mandate to end solitary confinement of juveniles at the Rikers Island prison has prompted calls for his firing.
President Obama’s executive orders also banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody. This is an important and positive policy change, but the president — and media coverage of his executive actions — failed to mention that three-quarters of juvenile inmates in federal custody are Native American, according to data from the federal Bureau of Prisons. Most are in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota. This is because the federal government has unique jurisdiction over crimes committed on tribal land, and most tribes lack juvenile detention facilities.
Obama has made criminal justice reform a priority. Along with solitary confinement, the incarceration of Native American youth needs further attention, with a focus on on-reservation alternatives to federal detention.