Locking up the mentally ill

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 3, 2014

MICHAEL THE MOST TORTURED

I met Michael James in late 2005 in the Maine State Prison, in Warren. A fierce-looking but blue-eyed, handsome young man, he was doing time for petty robbery and burglary (a 12-year sentence) and assaults on prison guards (three years).

I was beginning what turned into a long-running investigative series on prison abuse in Maine and elsewhere (120 articles so far). I focused first on the long-term solitary confinement in the Maine prison’s usually-full, 100-cell Special Management Unit or “Supermax.” Mind-destroying, lengthy isolation was — and still is — common in prison systems all over the country. Prolonged solitary I described as torture, which increasingly is the word used for it by human-rights groups and the United Nations. (See my Phoenix prison series online here.)

Other prisoners told me Michael was the Supermax’s most-tortured inmate. Hard-bitten felons practically begged me to do something about the cruelty Michael suffered. He had spent three and a half years in isolation by the time I interviewed him through a Plexiglas window. He had been put into solitary, he said, for threatening to kill himself.

His fellow Supermax inmates believed Michael held the record — five in one day — for “cell extractions,” which were, in essence, officially approved beatings inflicted by a SWAT-like team on disobedient prisoners. They were pepper-sprayed, yanked from their cells, stripped naked, and strapped into the “restraint chair,” where they might remain for many hours.

Joseph Ponte, who became Corrections commissioner in 2011 and sharply reduced solitary confinement, also showed that these extractions were unnecessary. He all but banned them, and chaos did not result. Ponte was recently chosen to institute similar reforms as head of New York City’s jails.

In his solitary cell, Michael cut himself, smashed his head against the wall, and threw feces at guards — typical symptoms of human beings forced into long-term isolation. By 2005 the prison had charged him with 10 feces assaults on guards — felonies — and hauled him into court. Fifty years could have been added to his sentence.

But his lawyer — Joseph Steinberger, of Rockland — convinced a jury in 2006 that Michael was not criminally responsible because of insanity. As required, the judge committed him to Riverview’s forensic section, which confines mental patients involved with the criminal-justice system.

State officials were shocked by this verdict — the first of its kind — and refused to send him to the hospital until he had finished his sentence. A long legal battle took place. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court finally said Michael had to go to Riverview, but his time there wouldn’t count against his sentence. He could be sent back to prison, the court said, if he was cured of violent tendencies or found “not amenable to treatment.”

Even though a Riverview psychiatrist testified in a court hearing in 2011 that Michael was a “garden-variety” patient, and even though the state admits his actions “have improved significantly in the hospital setting,” the state is now arguing that he should be returned to prison because he has incurable “antisocial personality disorder” — among his many other diagnoses.

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