Republicans were nearly unanimously opposed, and a few Democrats were prominent opponents. In fact, only two of the 13-member law-and-order-oriented Criminal Justice Committee had supported the immediate restriction of solitary (one was Schatz and the other John Nutting, a Democratic senator from Leeds). Representative Stephen Hanley, a committee Democrat from Gardiner, said the department “deserves something better” than the rebuke he felt the resolve was — even though it was a compromise fashioned by the committee’s Democratic chairmen.

By the time legislators began floor debate, the reformers’ principal lobbyists, Posner and the MCLU’s Bellows and Alysia Melnick, had abandoned hope that the bill in its original form would pass. This conclusion was borne out when the House killed, 109 to 33, a stripped-down version of the bill. Among other worries, legislators were concerned that passing it would require spending millions on a new prison psychiatric hospital, as the department claimed.

On the House floor the resolve’s supporters echoed testimony from LD 1611’s marathon public hearing in February, when experts described how solitary aggravates and creates mental illness, increasing risks to guards, other prisoners, and society at large when inmates return to the prison’s general population or exit the prison. Excessive solitary confinement is “a public-safety issue,” Schatz said. And many legislators agreed with Representative Sean Flaherty, a Scarborough Democrat, that solitary confinement was morally repugnant. “What does it say about our society that we can condone this type of treatment?” he asked.

But Republican Richard Sykes, a Criminal Justice Committee member from Harrison, said the resolve’s passage would be “an insult to the state of Maine.” Repeated statements like that during the charged, three-hour House debate actually fashioned the resolve into a slap in the department’s face.

Next time around

Two days after the resolve’s approval, the Portland Press Herald and its sister papers in Augusta and Waterville editorialized sympathetically that it “should not be the end of action on this issue.” It won’t be. The reformers will return next session. Meanwhile, if signed by Democratic Governor John Baldacci, the resolve will keep the issue alive. It requires not only the department but also the independent state Board of Corrections and the Criminal Justice Committee to review the practice of isolation.

In January there will be a new Legislature, governor, and — possibly — corrections commissioner. Contrary to rumors, “I’ve made no decision at this point regarding retirement,” Martin Magnusson said in an email. But a new governor may want a new commissioner. Whoever it is, the resolve asks the commissioner to report to the Criminal Justice Committee “any suggested policy or legislative changes” by January 15.

The elevation of public consciousness may be the reformers’ biggest accomplishment. The state’s news media gave the bill extensive coverage. “Maine has become a national leader in the fight to restrict this uniquely inhumane form of confinement,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in an e-mail to LD 1611’s supporters.

The MCLU said it expected Baldacci to sign the resolve. His office would only say that he has until April 17 “to determine what action he will take.” He had opposed LD 1611.

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Related: A mysterious new inmate death, Corrections disobeys another federal court order, Screams from solitary, More more >
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