Inmates at the Maine State Prison’s solitary-confinement Supermax unit in Warren have been on a hunger strike since Saturday night. The protest is connected to an October 5 suicide in the unit, said corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson after reports on the strike began leaking out of the prison.
Magnusson also confirmed Wednesday that two Supermax inmates had recently been taken to the hospital after they had “cut up” themselves with razors.
Two prisoners had recently told friends, who then contacted the Phoenix, that these individuals had tried to commit suicide but had been saved by guards. The prisoners have since returned to the prison, Magnusson said. He would not name them, citing privacy concerns.
Because of what these inmates had done to themselves, and because “we had information that other people were going to” cut themselves, Magnusson said, razor blades for shaving have been taken from the prisoners — a ban that helped precipitate the hunger strike, he said, adding that some prisoners are now being permitted to shave, but only outside their cells and under supervision.
Magnusson said eight prisoners on Wednesday were participating in the strike, down from 14 at its outset.
The commissioner said three additional correctional officers had been sent into the Supermax (officially, the Special Management Unit) after the suicide and the disruptions associated with it. Instead of most Supermax prisoners being checked every 30 minutes, he said, about 50 of the roughly 100 prisoners in the unit were now checked every 15 minutes. Originally, three prisoners considered to be of particular suicide risk were under constant watch, with a guard outside each of their cells, he said, but now only one is under this watch.
“We are monitoring the people on hunger strike from a medical perspective,” he said, and psychiatric social workers are talking with them.
“We had a suicide,” Magnusson said, to explain the strike’s basic cause, adding that there were also “personal issues” for some prisoners. Ryan Rideout, 24, of Augusta, had hung himself from a showerhead.
Deane Brown, a former Supermax inmate and longtime protestor of prison conditions now in the prison's general population, had left a message Tuesday on the answering machine of Rockland radio producer Ron Huber, saying the hunger strikers were in their fifth day. Early Wednesday, Huber played over the phone for the Phoenix the tape of Brown’s message.
“Twelve people are protesting conditions,” Brown said, because authorities “have taken away a lot of things.”
On Tuesday night, a former Supermax inmate now out of prison read to the Phoenix on the telephone a letter he said was from Supermax prisoner Michael Brine, who said he was taking part in the hunger strike. The man who read the letter requested anonymity because he feared retribution from law-enforcement personnel. The letter mentioned that stringent conditions imposed on inmates — he wrote that 7 to 10 inmates were involved — included the new prohibition on razors for shaving.
The inmates also were protesting, he said, Supermax bans on toothbrushes, soap, radios, television sets, and a second sweatshirt. Some of these items have been banned for some time. In his letter, Brine called the prohibitions “non-touch torture tactics.”