In the first-ever congressional hearing June 19 on the widespread use of solitary confinement in America's prisons, Senator Richard Durbin spoke favorably of the Maine prison system's substantial reduction of inmate isolation as he pressed the federal prisons chief to re-examine that agency's use of it.
Solitary generally means near-total isolation in a tiny, bare cell, with meals delivered through a slot in the door. A widely accepted figure for inmates in solitary confinement in the United States is 80,000. The US is the only country imprisoning people in this fashion en masse.
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, suggested to Bureau of Prisons director Charles Samuels that he should look at Maine corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte's recommendation to examine — in Ponte's words in his written testimony to the subcommittee — "what the current body of research tells us about changing prisoner behavior."
Ponte suggested officials ask: "Is the goal to punish or to teach/role-model pro-social skills?" He has pushed the latter.
Ponte noted that including prisoner advocates was important in planning his reforms. He involved representatives of the NAACP and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. Ponte also observed, "Shifting thinking among staff is challenging and takes time and education."
The ACLU of Maine, in its written testimony to the panel, called Ponte's actions "a model for what is possible in solitary-confinement reform."
To the surprise of many, Ponte was appointed by conservative Republican governor Paul LePage. The only other state corrections commissioner to give testimony to the subcommittee, Mississippi's Christopher Epps, has been reappointed by two Republican governors. President-elect of the American Correctional Association, Epps testified in person at the Washington DC, hearing, which saw an overflow audience.
In Mississippi, Epps recounted, prison violence and an ACLU lawsuit forced him to rethink solitary confinement. Reform began with his department examining whether each prisoner truly needed to be in such a restrictive setting. A crucial step was putting counseling programs in place to help prisoners improve behavior.
The number of his inmates kept in isolation, according to Epps, shrank by 76 percent from 2007 to 2012, accompanied by a large reduction of prison violence. Maine generally followed Mississippi's reform procedures, but a nearly 60-percent reduction in solitary occurred within months after Ponte took office in early 2011.
At the Maine State Prison, the Special Management Unit, informally called the supermax, in the past often had its 100 strict-isolation cells filled, but now commonly has 40 to 45 inmates in solitary, according to the Department of Corrections.
A quarter of these inmates stay for fewer than 72 hours. For those who remain longer, the stays average around 25 days. In the past, prisoners frequently remained in the supermax for many months and sometimes for years.
The hearing heard — and the written submissions repeated — that great numbers of mentally ill people are put in solitary, that the practice exacerbates mental illness, and that the results can be gruesome.
An exonerated former Texas death row inmate, Anthony Graves, who spent many years in isolation, told the subcommittee of a man on Texas's death row who "pulled his eye out and swallowed it."
Prison reformers see the hearing as a turning point — "a big deal," in the words of Richard Killmer, head of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, in an interview. "It raised new consciousness about solitary confinement."
And it may have tangible results. Durbin, the assistant majority leader, said he was working on legislation "to encourage reforms in the use of solitary confinement."
To access the Phoenix's series on Maine solitary confinement, now in its seventh year, go to thephoenix.com/MainePrisons.