Working with an activist group, the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Representative James Schatz, a Blue Hill Democrat, has proposed legislation to tightly limit when prisoners can be kept in the solitary confinement of the 100-man Supermax unit of the Maine State Prison in Warren. Legislative leaders will decide on October 15 if his bill will be allowed into the second, shorter session of the 124th Legislature, which begins in January.
Some members of Democratic leadership have said they will vote to let the bill in. “Solitary confinement is very often not just inhumane, but also counterproductive in achieving its own goals,” says Seth Berry, assistant House majority leader. House majority leader John Piotti says he also will vote to allow the bill to be introduced, and House speaker Hannah Pingree says she is “likely” to support its introduction. Two Republicans contacted, Kevin Raye, Senate minority leader, and Jonathan Courtney, assistant Senate minority leader, say they haven’t made up their minds. Six votes of the 10-member Legislative Council are needed to admit a bill. (Legislators can appeal a rejection at the council’s November meeting.)
The prison puts inmates in the Supermax — the Special Management Unit — if they are violent, have violated major or minor prison rules, are in “protective custody” so they will not be hurt by other prisoners, or are the subject of an unproven accusation made by another prisoner. The most common denominator is mental illness.
They all endure 23-hour-a-day isolation (with one hour outside for exercise), no television or radio, little or no rehabilitation or education, and the cell lights are always on. When their psychological state deteriorates, as it often does, they may throw feces at guards, prolonging their Supermax stay and often resulting in prison sentences for assault. Inmates sometimes stay in solitary for years. Many cut themselves. All inmate suicides in recent years have been in the Supermax or its adjacent psychiatric unit.
Schatz, who sits on the Criminal Justice Committee and has a master’s degree in correctional administration, says he’s concerned that solitary confinement may be inappropriately used as a “disciplinary tool.”
The bill would allow Supermax confinement beyond 45 days only “under the most extreme circumstances” such as an attempt at escape or violence resulting in “serious injury to another or death.” Even then, an elaborate hearing and appeals process would be set in motion. Prisoners with “serious mental illness” could not be kept in the Supermax. The use of restraint chairs — used after prisoners are forcibly “extracted” from their cells for disobeying orders — would be prohibited.
(Full disclosure: This reporter has given advice on the bill to members of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. The Portland Phoenix has published a long-running investigative series on the Supermax. The stories are accessible atthePhoenix.com/Portland.)
Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson says he believes Supermax confinement is “an appropriate option,” but wants to move inmates out of the Supermax faster. He says he’ll “look at” the possibility of radios and TVs for Supermax prisoners. In the past year Supermax inmates have twice staged hunger strikes to demand radios. His department is beginning to study Schatz’s bill.
Magnusson was interviewed after a September 29 prison press conference he held with Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP was conducting a voter-registration drive at all of Maine’s adult prisons. Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow imprisoned felons to vote.