In the end, whether mass solitary confinement continues at the Maine State Prison supermax may come down to an issue of money rather than right or wrong. And resolving that issue may come down to whether the state wants to pay more now to pay less in the long term.
Psychiatrists, religious leaders, human-rights activists, former prisoners, and many others showed up in force at a nine-hour legislative hearing on February 17 to urge passage of a bill to restrict the Warren prison’s extensive use of solitary. Organized by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, LD 1611’s proponents told the Criminal Justice Committee that prolonged solitary confinement was a form of torture. Experts testified to overwhelming medical evidence that supermax isolation tends to drive prisoners mad — especially, those who are already mentally unstable.
The medical evidence was not disputed by the Department of Corrections. Commissioner Martin Magnusson, however, said his department “does not have the housing or staff” to treat the mentally ill prisoners who would not be allowed to be put in the supermax if the bill became law. Magnusson said that “almost every person” in the Special Management Unit, the 132-man supermax, has a “serious mental illness” under the bill’s definition, though he thought the definition was too broad.
Dealing with these inmates less restrictively, he said, would cost taxpayers more than $11 million a year at a time of budgetary difficulty for the state. The nonpartisan legislative Office of Fiscal and Program Review, however, has not yet calculated how much the bill would cost the state.
LD 1611, sponsored by Representative James Schatz (D-Blue Hill), a Criminal Justice committee member, would ban placing seriously mentally ill inmates in solitary, restrict keeping prisoners there to 45 days (with some exceptions), reduce the use of physical restraints, and set up a placement appeals process.
Virtually all of the bill’s opponents were Corrections employees. Many argued that limiting the ability of guards to keep inmates in the supermax would make their jobs more dangerous.
But Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a national expert on solitary confinement, testified that not driving prisoners insane makes a prison safer than a supermax does — and therefore cheaper, since controlling violent prisoners is expensive. Other testimony noted that labor-intensive supermax incarceration as a rule costs two or three times the cost of regular imprisonment.
Janis Petzel, president of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, testified about her experience with an alternative: “I thought if we got rid of solitary and restraints in mental hospitals we couldn’t handle patients, but I was wrong.” Both Petzel and Grassian said disruptive individuals could be calmed within a brief period — often minutes or hours. The supermax sometimes imprisons men for months or years.
A University of Southern Maine political science professor, Richard Maiman, suggested Maine could learn from Mississippi, which — facing lawsuits — drastically reduced the number of supermax inmates as it reduced supermax “serious incidents” by 70 percent as a result of relaxing restrictions on prisoners.
Representative Veronica Magnan (D-Stockton Springs) responded: “I don’t care about Mississippi.”
Many committee members made statements strongly suggesting they were in favor of the department status quo. Several members have worked or still work in law enforcement or corrections. The bill’s supporters expect a more favorable reception on the House and Senate floors. Leaders of the majority Democrats are cosponsors.