Zachary Swain's tattooed hands rest on his lap at the Maine State Prison infirmary on August 9. Since 2018, Swain, 25, has been hospitalized 14 times for swallowing things -- spoons, toothbrushes, copper wire, fingernail clippers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine earned a reputation as a national model for reducing its use of solitary confinement. Now, lawmakers will consider whether to end the controversial practice for good.

The Legislature’s criminal justice committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill to ban the use of solitary confinement in Maine jails and prisons. It would also restrict the state’s use of other kinds of prolonged isolation and create an independent overseer to ensure the state is in compliance with the new rules, called the “confinement ombudsman.”

The bill marks the most aggressive step to end solitary since the state made changes several years ago to reduce its use in all but the most extreme cases. Research has shown that prolonged periods of isolation are inhumane and ineffective.

“We’re asking the Department [of Corrections] to do the final step — to move beyond solitary confinement and into rehabilitation for everyone,” said Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, a statewide coalition that helped craft the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland.

The bill, LD 696, fleshes out an older version that was held over from last year’s legislative session.

It begins by broadening and standardizing the definition of “solitary confinement” to isolation in a cell for more than 20 hours a day, three hours less than the state’s current measure.

It then establishes alternative housing options for prisoners who are too dangerous or disruptive to live in the general population, and instead places them in more therapeutic units aimed at addressing their behavioral issues, similar to a bill that recently passed in New York.

Right now, Maine officials have the option of sending prisoners to the Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison, but the criteria for admission is narrow. For example, a recent Bangor Daily News investigation revealed how 25-year-old Zachary Swain failed to get a spot in the unit despite his history of mental illness and repeated suicide attempts in isolation.

The bill also restricts who can be confined to their cells for longer periods (between 17 and 20 hours a day), should that need to happen in the event of violence or serious wrongdoing.

People with disabilities, who are pregnant or postpartum, older than 65 or under 21 would be excluded from that option. And officials wouldn’t be able to isolate people for more than three days in a row, or more than nine days in a 60-day window.

The Department of Corrections plans to share its position on the bill during Wednesday’s hearing, a spokesperson said.


Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.