Pressure rising

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

Brown’s descriptions of the SMU on the Maine Supermax Watch Web site sparked the Phoenix’s stories. He has taken flak from some guards because of his outspokenness, he says, but he seems well-regarded in the prison.

“Deane has been institutionalized all but three years since the age of six,” a Rockland friend, Beth Berry, writes in an e-mail. “Although he has been brutally victimized, he has never lost compassion for others being victimized . . . When the lights went out [in a prison power failure], he ran to a female guard and was struck by other inmates while he protected her. She quit and sent him a letter of thanks.”

Michael JamesAnother inmate, Michael James, who also was interviewed in the fall and re-interviewed recently, agrees that Supermax conditions are much the same, and he has remained within the unit. He echoes Brown that the only change is the repainting. Impressing the ACA accreditation team was such a big deal for the prison, he says, that the guards “threatened us up and down” to behave when the team visited. But “people still throw feces and all that,” he says.

James, a man in his early 20s, is in the fifth year of a 12-year sentence for robbery, most of which time he has spent in the Supermax. His lawyer, Joseph Steinberger of Rockland, says, “He hasn’t been able to conform himself to their demands for behavior,” as the reason he has spent so much time in the Supermax. He is disobedient. He’s mentally ill.

By many accounts including his own, James is very mentally disturbed. Possibly, he has spent more hours in the restraint chair than anyone else, though he says he has managed to stay out of it for four months. Steinberger says he’s not sure why, but “I’d like to believe as a result of the attention he’s gotten the guards are less cruel to him.” James has cited his responses to guards’ taunts in the past as one of the reasons he has ended up in the restraint chair.

James believes he should be treated at the state’s mental hospital in Augusta — formerly called the Augusta Mental Health Institute, now Riverview Psychiatric Center. For people with mental troubles, the SMU segregation “defeats its purpose,” he says — it just makes them act up more.

He says he protested to the district attorney who handles prison cases about harassment by guards. But “nothing happened. I never heard nothing back from him.”

The district attorney’s office, however, is aware of James. He goes on trial in June in Rockland for six cases of felony assault against guards. Each conviction could result in up to five additional years in prison. His lawyer plans to present an insanity defense in an effort to have him committed to Riverview.

Of the other Supermax inmates interviewed in October, Charles Limanni and Norman Kehling are back in the regular prison, and Michael Chasse and Joseph Reeves are still “in the hole,” as the prisoners say.

MCLU threatens to sue
Meanwhile, others are pressing for change, from the outside.

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