Torture for the hostage-taker?

Prison watch
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  July 9, 2008
FEARING FOR HIS SAFETY? Inmate Michael Chasse.

Will Michael Chasse, the inmate who allegedly held two people hostage on June 30 at the Maine State Prison, now be tortured by Governor John Baldacci’s administration, much as President George W. Bush’s administration has tortured prisoners at Guantánamo?

That was the question implicit in a recent e-mail “action alert” sent out by the Portland-based anti-torture group known as the Black Bird Collective. Believing that Chasse’s many years in solitary confinement may have driven him to what the prison says he did, prisoner-rights activists from around New England have in response called and e-mailed state officials, urging the state Department of Corrections not to isolate him again as punishment.

But at the moment solitary may be only one of Chasse’s problems.

A number of prison sources have told the Phoenix that prison personnel treated Chasse roughly after he surrendered. One source said he suffered a broken arm. Corrections refused to provide information on his condition or let him be interviewed.

Chasse, 33, of Lewiston, is in isolation at the 100-man Supermax or Special Management Unit inside the Warren prison. He had already spent the better part of a decade there. He is in prison for robbery, assault, escape, and other offenses, with his release scheduled for 2029, but now he will likely face new charges. He had been allowed into the general population a few months prior to allegedly seizing a prison employee and an inmate and holding them at knife-point for seven hours.

The hostages reportedly suffered minor injuries. Corrections would not identify them, but prison sources said they were inmate Ryan Currier and librarian Jacqueline Weddle of Thomaston. Weddle did not respond to attempts to reach her on the phone, and Corrections would not let Currier be interviewed.

In a 2005 Phoenix interview, Chasse told of the psychological effects of being isolated for 23 hours a day for years: “There is a noise that comes from the air vents. The sounds start to seem like voices. I have built imaginary relationships with those white noises.” (See “Torture in Maine’s Prison,” by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005.)

Black Bird’s David Bidler noted that prisoners are not sentenced by a judge to solitary confinement. He sees Supermax isolation as an extra-judicial in-house punishment system “in the shadows” — separate from the criminal-justice system.

It’s a system similar to the United States military’s, he said: “The cells and the type of treatment used at Guantánamo are all exports from American prisons, especially the supermaxes.” There are several hundred prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, but there may be as many as 50,000 in domestic supermaxes.

Citing research showing that prolonged solitary confinement destroys minds — a topic frequently in the news because of the treatment of prisoners at the Guantánamo base and elsewhere — anti-supermax activists say it is illegal under the UN Convention Against Torture, which the US has ratified and which prohibits punishment by “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.”

Bidler said his group is drafting a bill to be submitted to the next Legislature to end solitary confinement and other forms of torture in Maine’s prisons. He said his group’s goal is to shut down the Supermax. He wants Maine to become “a standard bearer for human rights.”

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