Arbitrary injustice

Sent to Supermax solitary confinement
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 9, 2009

Troy Fears, 53, is, as he expresses it, "down for the count." A stocky man with a shaved head and a light mustache, he was convicted in the 1970s for rape, assault with a deadly weapon, and other crimes. He doesn't expect to ever get out of prison.

Related story: "Lawmakers to probe the prison: Several investigations begin simultaneously" by Lance Tapley 

Problem is, Fears doesn't like the particular prison where he now resides. He would prefer to be in one near his family in Arizona, whose corrections department sent him to the Maine State Prison in Warren in 2007. Corrections departments generally exchange prisoners who are in danger or whom they consider to be troublemakers.

Fears especially doesn't like where the Maine prison put him last June: the Supermax or Special Management Unit, where he is in solitary confinement, apart from an hour of exercise outdoors once a day, and where he can talk with other prisoners only "if I scream through the door."

The solitude, he says, "wears on you." He knows prisoners can be driven insane by Supermax confinement. He has seen men banging their heads against the wall and smearing their feces on the small cell-door window.

But Fears has more resources than some Supermax residents. He's not mentally ill. He's quite intelligent. He has a fighting spirit. Perhaps most important, he says he has a friend on the outside (whom he wouldn't name) who hired a lawyer, Andrews Campbell of Bowdoinham, to contest his placement in the Supermax, which Campbell calls "the state's version of Guantánamo."

And so last fall Fears, challenging the practice of what critics say is arbitrary, lengthy solitary confinement, took Maine Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson to court. Fears says he was denied due process — that the prison repeatedly violated its own rules in putting him in the Supermax. The prison claims, he says, that he was put there for his own safety because of a tax-fraud scheme gone awry, but he says he has never been in a fight with a prisoner or a guard, nor even questioned by an investigator. Campbell asks: Where's the evidence?

Fears's frustration recently prompted him to write an angry letter to prison officials. This got him placed, on March 20, in the toughest wing of the Supermax, he says, where he couldn't even mix with other prisoners during exercise period.

He protested this move with a hunger strike. "Nobody noticed," he says, except a guard told him if he continued he'd be stripped, put in a "turtle suit" — a flimsy smock — and placed in a special cell where a guard would watch him 24/7. He ended his strike after two and a half days.

A judge in Superior Court in Rockland has been sitting on his case for months, he says, without scheduling a hearing.

But now, he adds, he suddenly may be getting some justice.

On April 2, after the Phoenix had requested to interview him at the prison, Warden Jeffrey Merrill came to his cell, he says, and told him plans were afoot to send him back to Arizona.

Merrill declined to give the prison's side of this story. Protecting the inmate's privacy is the invariable justification given by Corrections officials for not discussing the treatment of a prisoner, even one who publicly discusses his treatment.

  Topics: News Features , Politics, Criminal Sentencing and Punishment, Prisons,  More more >
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