Are doctors complicit in prison torture?

The Maine medical community looks at solitary confinement
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 21, 2010

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In the past few years an outcry has arisen over the involvement of military and CIA medical professionals and psychologists in torture, including psychologically destructive solitary confinement of “war on terror” inmates at the Guantánamo prison camp. Some critics have even suggested criminal prosecution of the medical staff involved or, at least, revocation of their professional licenses.

In Maine’s prison system, too, inmates — many of them mentally ill — are kept in isolation for months or years in the state prison’s 132-cell Special Management Unit, its “supermax,” in Warren. Some Maine doctors are now looking closely at the state’s supermax, saying that solitary confinement constitutes torture, and asking if the medical professionals and psychologists involved with the facility are complicit in torture.

“I do believe they should look at the big picture,” says Janis Petzel, of Hallowell, president of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, talking specifically about doctors who do “peer reviews,” a type of quality review, of Maine’s inmate psychiatric care. “Twenty years ahead I don’t want to look back and say we were like the Nazi doctors.” When physicians encounter solitary confinement, she says, they “have a duty to speak out.”

In the recent legislative debate over LD 1611, the bill to restrict prison solitary confinement, Petzel and other supporters spoke out — loudly and clearly. She told legislators at the bill’s public hearing that “by international definition” solitary confinement “is a form of torture.” Sheila Comerford, director of the Maine affiliate of the American Psychological Association, which represents psychologists, told the Criminal Justice Committee that “isolation was included in the American Psychological Association definition of torture in 2007. Members are forbidden from taking part in interrogations which included isolation at US military prisons.”

A number of mental-health experts testified about overwhelming medical evidence that extended solitary confinement both creates and worsens mental illness. The Maine Civil Liberties Union, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and other groups also called prisoner isolation a form of torture.

The Department of Corrections has a tidy answer to the question of medical-personnel complicity in solitary-confinement torture. “We don’t utilize solitary confinement in Maine,” says Joseph Fitzpatrick, the psychologist who is clinical director of the prison system. While supermax prisoners are kept in isolation cells for 23 to 24 hours a day, with meals delivered through slots in steel doors, they have interaction with staff, so they are not in solitary, he maintains. At LD 1611’s hearing, corrections officials told of several-times-a-week showers, occasional visits by a chaplain (who generally talks with an inmate through the cell door), and other contacts that break up isolation. Fitzpatrick admits that if solitary confinement did take place, it might be destructive to prisoners.

But Stuart Grassian, a Massachusetts psychiatrist who is one of the country’s leading authorities on the effects of solitary confinement, says such deniers “don’t know what they’re talking about.” The scientific and legal literature, he says, “totally” would find that Maine supermax conditions constitute solitary confinement. Grassian testified in favor of LD 1611 at the hearing, where he was joined by other experts, legal as well as medical, in describing how Maine supermax conditions rank as classic solitary confinement.

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