Joseph Steinberger thought he had won one of the most important trials of his legal career. His client, Michael James, an inmate of the Maine State Prison’s “Supermax” maximum-security solitary confinement unit, had been charged with ten assaults on guards. James is one of the most disturbed of what the prison system admits are hundreds of mentally ill inmates. After five days of testimony from four psychologists and psychiatrists and the accused himself, a Knox County jury on June 27 found James “not criminally responsible” by reason of insanity.
As a court-appointed Rockland attorney who represents many mentally ill prisoners, Steinberger felt this verdict might be a landmark because it put in question the state’s practice of keeping many such prisoners in solitary confinement, where advocates for the mentally ill say they receive minimal psychiatric care. Advocates in Maine and nationally say this practice creates a vicious cycle that drives prisoners into suicidal or aggressive behavior — the latter bringing additional sentences for assault and more Supermax time.
But the Knox County jury broke the cycle — or so it seemed.
On the day of the verdict, Superior Court Justice Donald Marden ordered James into the custody of the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) “to be placed in an appropriate institution for the mentally ill . . . for care and treatment.” In Maine, that institution is the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which has a 48-bed unit for people charged with, or convicted of, crimes.
The next day, however, Katherine Greason and Diane Sleek, the assistant attorneys general representing respectively DHHS and the Department of Corrections, wrote the judge that they had advised their departments that James “should remain in prison to serve his current sentence, and then be placed with DHHS.” They gave no reason for this decision, citing vaguely “the statutes and available case law,” though mentioning the state had the right to move any prisoner on an emergency basis to the mental hospital.
Steinberger was stunned. As he wrote Governor John Baldacci on July 4, “the prison intends, despite [the judge’s] order, to keep Mike in solitary confinement for ten more years before sending him to the mental hospital.” He asked Baldacci to step in and under “basic principles of human decency . . . insist that Mike James be treated humanely and be placed in the state mental hospital as the judge has ordered.” He also published the letter in his column in the weekly Rockland Free Press.
James, now 23, was sentenced to 12 years in prison at the age of 18 for snatching a purse, breaking into a parked car, and robbing someone with a gun-shaped cigarette lighter. He had spent most of his childhood in mental institutions. In the Warren prison, he has spent almost all his time in the Supermax (or Special Management Unit), where disobedient and troublesome prisoners are kept. While there, he pleaded guilty to an earlier series of assaults on guards, adding three years to his time. James was interviewed and described in three previous Phoenix articles about Supermax abuse and the state’s promises of reform. (See the first, “Torture in the Supermax,” by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005, to connect to the others.)