It’s hard to uncover the truth of what goes on in prisons. Prisoners are always unhappy, prisons are rumor mills, and corrections officials are tight-lipped. But the reports I get are consistent.
I wasn’t supposed to interview prisoners, but in the Mental Health Unit a short, meek-looking inmate, James Brensinger, handed me a typed essay describing his incessant cutting up (he showed me deep scars on his arms), suicide attempts, hallucinations, and the medical staff’s failure to deal with his condition. It ends: “I am begging someone to please hear my pleas and cries.”
In the other part of the unit, seven prisoners, some seemingly heavily doped, watched a TV high on a wall. I asked an alert young man how prisoners occupied themselves there. He silently pointed to the TV. Then, he remarked, referring to the cellblock: “Our mental health unit without mental health.”
Here — to the prison supermax’s Mental Health Unit — is where Republican Governor Paul LePage and the Democratic Legislature recently decided to send violence-prone patients from the state’s chief psychiatric hospital, Riverview, in Augusta. Unconvicted jail inmates whom the courts have concluded should be examined for their sanity — people presumably innocent until proven guilty — will also be sent to this prison unit. Twenty more cells will be opened.
There’s individual insanity, and there’s social insanity. The writer Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, a “normal” man who sat at his desk and calmly signed papers that sent millions of Jews to their death.
The Maine State Prison’s supermax, with its polished floors only a little stained with blood and, while I was there, with its tranquility only occasionally interrupted by a prisoner’s muffled cries, is, to me, a physical manifestation of the banality of evil. “A clean version of hell,” as a former prison warden described another supermax.
To be more compassionate toward its creators, however — to be less like those who defend this uniquely American form of mass torture — I should discard a word like “evil” and describe the supermax as a manifestation of social insanity, of a sick society.
“It’s just crazy, this whole place,” the young man in the Mental Health Unit told me.