Pressure rising

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

On February 3, Carol Carothers, director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill: Maine, sent a copy of the Phoenix’s Supermax series to the chairmen of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, asking for a meeting to discuss treatment of mentally ill people at the Supermax.

“Several states have enacted laws that prohibit placing inmates with mental illness in 23-hour lockdown because it exacerbates the illness and generally leads to increased time in prison,” she said in an accompanying letter. (The prisoners have an hour for outdoor exercise five days a week, weather permitting.)

On February 9, representatives of the civil liberties union met with Magnusson, following up with a letter threatening a lawsuit if the Department of Corrections doesn’t stop keeping mentally ill people in solitary confinement. “We are all hopeful that a satisfactory solution can be found that will not require litigation,” the MCLU wrote.

The letter also stated: “The continued presence of any individuals with serious mental illness in the detention unit ... is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society. We are prepared to do whatever we can to help you bring this practice to an end, but end it must.” The group’s parent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, has successfully sued to improve supermax conditions in other states.

On March 10, NAMI’s Carothers met with the legislative committee and, in Magnusson’s presence, asked the department for data on solitary confinement, on the use of the restraint chair, and on the extent these practices involve mentally ill prisoners.

“We need some good thinking about what is a better way” than present Supermax practices, she told the committee. She felt the data would dictate what actions need to be taken. Magnusson said he would comply with her request.

The department already has said that, compared to other states, Maine has a high number of mentally ill people in the prison system. At the committee meeting, Magnusson estimated it was 40 percent. And the department has figures on restraint chair use. In 2003, 164 uses occurred; there were 205 in 2004 and 178 in 2005. In the first two months of 2006, however, the chair was used only five times, and only once in February (four of those five times by two prisoners).

Hovering in the background in the committee room was the MCLU’s lawyer, Zachary Heiden. In an interview, he said his group believes solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the United States Constitution. The prisoners should be “in an environment where their civil rights and dignity as human beings are respected,” he said.

At this time the MCLU isn’t in a “High Noon” showdown with the department, he said, and he was hopeful officials would be cooperative. Often, advocacy groups use the threat of a lawsuit to drive policy changes, reserving its filing as a last resort.

After the meeting, Senator John Nutting, a Democrat from Leeds, said the department’s treatment of mentally ill people is “inexcusable. They’ve balanced their budget on the backs of the mentally ill” by not providing enough services for inmates with mental problems. (But legislators for years have provided the Department of Corrections with tight budgets.)

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