At times the legislative debate on LD 1611, the bill to limit solitary confinement of the state’s prisoners, became surreal.

Although psychiatrists and psychologists almost unanimously agree that extended isolation in a prison cell is destructive of the human mind — their professional organizations in the state supported LD 1611 — and solitary confinement is defined as torture by many human-rights groups, “I didn’t see any torture while I was there,” said Representative Michael Celli, a Brewer Republican, during the House debate, recounting his tour of the Maine State Prison’s 132-cell solitary-confinement “supermax” in Warren.

Celli, a former Texan who lists his occupation as “disabled,” said he had even asked officials to strap him into the notorious restraint chair, which is used for discipline after solitarily confined inmates have been dragged from their cells. Celli said he found it “quite comfortable.”

Other legislators agreed with the Corrections Department that locking up inmates alone for 23 hours a day with meals passed through a slot in a steel door wasn’t solitary confinement because, for example, they got showers a few times a week.

Some legislators suggested that the prisoners in the supermax (or Special Management Unit) were all vicious animals — though according to the department’s own data most were not there because of violence. Many had broken prison rules such as by getting themselves tattooed or possessing prohibited items.

“I learned that sometimes it takes telling the truth 100 times to undo one lie,” said Emily Posner, of Montville, of her experience as an unpaid lobbyist for the grass-roots Maine Coalition Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement.

But her repetitive labor and that of others paid off — sort of. On April 6 the Legislature approved LD 1611 in the reduced form of a resolve requiring the Maine prison system and its overseers to review the use of solitary confinement. It was a “moral victory,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), which led the effort for legislative action.

The resolve won’t necessarily change the way prisoners are treated. Resolves are passed when the Legislature wants something limited done — such as a review or study. The original bill, sponsored by Representative James Schatz, a Democrat from Blue Hill, would have banned prisoners with “serious mental illness” from isolation — most inmates in solitary are mentally ill — and restricted to 45 days solitary confinement for all but the most dangerous prisoners.

First time around

The MCLU’s moral-victory claim, however, was not just spin. Reforms almost never pass in their legislative debut. LD 1611’s supporters said that getting the Legislature to agree on a review guaranteed a return bout next year. The MCLU’s parent, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, another supporting organization, were so encouraged they planned to tout the Maine bill and the political campaign built around it as models for other states.

One indication of the resolve’s importance was that Corrections fought it tooth and nail. Troops of sullen-looking prison guards — they tended to be bulky, middle-aged men in windbreakers — lined the State House corridors for several days. Their presence reminded Democrats that, if they voted for reform, they would have to buck the prison-guard unions. But with support of Democratic leadership the resolve prevailed 78 to 67 in the final House vote and 18 to 15 in the Senate. Democrats have an almost-two-to-one legislative majority.

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