Whistleblower returns; Maine a prison-reform model

Prodigal Sons  
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 27, 2013

BACK HOME AND GETTING BETTER Prison-conditions whistleblower Deane Brown, exiled for media contact. CREDIT Lance Tapley

On Valentine's Day, prisoner Deane Brown, who sounded an alarm that drew international attention to the savagery of solitary confinement and other abuses in the Maine State Prison's "supermax" unit, was returned to the Warren prison after an exile of more than six years.

On March 12, the American Civil Liberties Union told an international commission that Maine had become a model for how solitary confinement can be reduced.

With these two events, a nearly eight-year-old chapter in the struggle for prison reform in Maine may have closed.

"We could all take a moment to feel good about what has been achieved," reflected Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) co-coordinator Jim Bergin.

In 2005, Brown not only spoke out but also organized other supermax prisoners to be interviewed by the Phoenix. In 2006, to try to end his connection to the Maine news media, the Department of Corrections shipped him to violent, racial-gang-ridden prisons in Maryland and, in 2010, to the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

The supermax abuses Brown and other inmates described — especially, prolonged isolation's destructive effects on mentally ill prisoners — are still common across the country. But they are increasingly recognized as torture. The ACLU report calls solitary confinement "barbaric."

Referring to his whistleblowing, Brown, 49, said in a recent prison interview, "I'd do it all again tomorrow."

He has returned to a changed prison. The first change he mentioned was the huge reduction in the number of inmates held in the supermax because less-harsh disciplinary methods have been substituted for solitary confinement. Guards may defuse disruptive situations simply by talking with prisoners.

And "guards aren't going out of their way" now to rile up prisoners, Brown said.

He noted, however — confirming other reports — that not all guards have accepted the changes. Some "feel their hands are tied," he said. They say they fear the new policies will lead to more inmate violence.

But even with what Brown said was insufficient prison staff, he hadn't seen any violence in the weeks since he returned, he said, adding: "I just came from a place where someone is stabbed, beaten every day."

Brown, serving 59 years for a 1990s' burglary spree, has found other positive changes. There's less of the guards' "buddy-buddy system." Inmates and reformers have long complained of correctional officers protecting each other's bad conduct.

Because of sores on his feet from diabetes, Brown now uses a wheelchair to get around much of the time. But his health is improving with the Maine prison's care, he said, though like other prisoners he complained about a policy prohibiting opiate painkillers.

There are "some quality people" on the medical staff, Brown observed, and some not so.

Among Commissioner Joseph Ponte's reforms is a new prison medical-service provider, Correct Care Solutions, which Ponte has praised. MPAC, however, still "continues to be very concerned" with inmate care, said its other coordinator, Judy Garvey.

The ACLU report, "Change Is Possible," given to the Organization of American States human rights commission, was written by Maine ACLU attorney Zachary Heiden.

It urges the commission to investigate solitary-confinement practices in this country, where at least 80,000 prisoners are held in isolation cells. The United States is the only country practicing mass solitary confinement.

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  Topics: This Just In , Prisons, American Civil Liberties Union, Deane Brown,  More more >
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