At times the legislative debate on LD 1611, the bill to limit solitary confinement of the state’s prisoners, became surreal.

Although psychiatrists and psychologists almost unanimously agree that extended isolation in a prison cell is destructive of the human mind — their professional organizations in the state supported LD 1611 — and solitary confinement is defined as torture by many human-rights groups, “I didn’t see any torture while I was there,” said Representative Michael Celli, a Brewer Republican, during the House debate, recounting his tour of the Maine State Prison’s 132-cell solitary-confinement “supermax” in Warren.

Celli, a former Texan who lists his occupation as “disabled,” said he had even asked officials to strap him into the notorious restraint chair, which is used for discipline after solitarily confined inmates have been dragged from their cells. Celli said he found it “quite comfortable.”

Other legislators agreed with the Corrections Department that locking up inmates alone for 23 hours a day with meals passed through a slot in a steel door wasn’t solitary confinement because, for example, they got showers a few times a week.

Some legislators suggested that the prisoners in the supermax (or Special Management Unit) were all vicious animals — though according to the department’s own data most were not there because of violence. Many had broken prison rules such as by getting themselves tattooed or possessing prohibited items.

“I learned that sometimes it takes telling the truth 100 times to undo one lie,” said Emily Posner, of Montville, of her experience as an unpaid lobbyist for the grass-roots Maine Coalition Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement.

But her repetitive labor and that of others paid off — sort of. On April 6 the Legislature approved LD 1611 in the reduced form of a resolve requiring the Maine prison system and its overseers to review the use of solitary confinement. It was a “moral victory,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU), which led the effort for legislative action.

The resolve won’t necessarily change the way prisoners are treated. Resolves are passed when the Legislature wants something limited done — such as a review or study. The original bill, sponsored by Representative James Schatz, a Democrat from Blue Hill, would have banned prisoners with “serious mental illness” from isolation — most inmates in solitary are mentally ill — and restricted to 45 days solitary confinement for all but the most dangerous prisoners.

First time around

The MCLU’s moral-victory claim, however, was not just spin. Reforms almost never pass in their legislative debut. LD 1611’s supporters said that getting the Legislature to agree on a review guaranteed a return bout next year. The MCLU’s parent, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, another supporting organization, were so encouraged they planned to tout the Maine bill and the political campaign built around it as models for other states.

One indication of the resolve’s importance was that Corrections fought it tooth and nail. Troops of sullen-looking prison guards — they tended to be bulky, middle-aged men in windbreakers — lined the State House corridors for several days. Their presence reminded Democrats that, if they voted for reform, they would have to buck the prison-guard unions. But with support of Democratic leadership the resolve prevailed 78 to 67 in the final House vote and 18 to 15 in the Senate. Democrats have an almost-two-to-one legislative majority.

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: This Just In , Politics, Politics, James Schatz,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY LANCE TAPLEY
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   MICHAEL JAMES SENT BACK TO PRISON  |  April 16, 2014
    The hearing’s topic was whether James’s “antisocial personality disorder” was enough of a mental disease to keep him from being sent to prison.
  •   LOCKING UP THE MENTALLY ILL  |  April 03, 2014
    The merger of the prison and mental-health systems continues
  •   WHERE ARE THE LEADERS ON CLIMATE CHANGE?  |  March 20, 2014
    The conference was held in March despite the risk of a snowstorm because its organizers wanted “to reach the Legislature while it’s in session,” co-coordinator Fred Horch said.
  •   ANATOMY OF A RIP-OFF, PART II  |  March 06, 2014
    Imagine if state government gave out millions of dollars a year to fat-cat financiers, big banks,  and speculative ventures without monitoring how the money is spent — basically, giving it to whoever walks in the door as long as they flash a few credentials.
  •   ANATOMY OF A TAXPAYER RIP-OFF  |  February 19, 2014
    To try to restore several hundred mill jobs to the historic paper-making North Country towns of Millinocket and East Millinocket, Maine’s politicians, in a bipartisan manner, have given away and are planning to give away millions of taxpayer dollars to various corporate interests, including big, out-of-state banks.

 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY