‘By dehumanizing prisoners, we dehumanize ourselves.’
The 132-man supermax unit within the 925-man Maine State Prison is an expensive, taxpayer-funded torture chamber that for 18 years has sucked in mostly nonviolent, mostly mentally ill prisoners and ground them up by means of mind-destroying solitary confinement, officially sanctioned beatings, “restraint” devices resembling those in medieval dungeons, sexual humiliation, and psychiatric, medical, and what might be called legal neglect. Months or years later, the prisoners are spit out, if they survive, with damaged brains and bodies, and sometimes they are spit out onto the streets as homicidal maniacs. It’s like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, except worse.
Remarkably, unlike Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo, until recently few in the public paid attention to the Maine supermax and its many brutal brothers in other states, even as the supermax machine chewed up the public’s money at a great rate and its graduates put the public at great risk.
For example, there was no outcry in Maine in response to what happened after a supermax veteran named Michael Woodbury was released from the state prison in 2007 despite warning his jailers in writing that he was deranged and would do bad things. He promptly shot and killed a salesclerk and two young customers while attempting to rob an outdoor-gear store in Conway, New Hampshire. Even though the mentally ill Woodbury didn’t go into prison as a murderer (he served five years for robbery and theft), Maine corrections officials and the governor, John Baldacci, washed their hands of responsibility for the consequences when he came out. (Woodbury pleaded guilty and was given a life sentence.)
Or consider the case of another young man, Sam Caison, who a couple of weeks ago was charged by police with shooting and wounding a man in Augusta. The Kennebec Journal noted he had an extensive criminal record, but it didn’t note that he also had an extensive history of mental illness, “including hallucinations, being in and out of psych units since the age of nine,” as he wrote me from the supermax in 2007.
Caison said his hallucinations and nightmares in prison had increased after Ryan Rideout hanged himself in the same supermax cellblock in 2006. In Caison’s imagination “Ryan keeps begging me to ‘help him’,” he wrote. He hadn’t been able to prevent Rideout’s death because, according to a lawsuit filed against state officials by Rideout’s mother, on the night of the suicide guards had turned off the in-cell alarm buttons. So Caison and other inmates pressed them to no effect when Rideout, also mentally ill, began preparations for his death, which he had tried to bring about many times before.
Caison wrote me twice, begging for help in getting mental-health services, because of my long-running series of prison stories. I failed him. Perhaps if I had written about him the prison would have treated him better, and then maybe he and his alleged victim wouldn’t be in their present circumstances (the victim, apparently, wasn’t critically wounded). I went to the Kennebec County Jail recently and apologized — a lot of prisoners write me, I told him. A handsome, earnest 26-year-old with a shaved head, Caison said he understood. He went on to relate a story I have heard often: abusive childhood; in and out of psychiatric hospitals and youth detention centers; heroin addiction; diagnoses of bipolar disorder, borderline schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression; much “cutting up” in prison; a suicide attempt.
Cutting himself is “stress relief,” Caison said, with tears streaming down his face. The reaction of supermax guards to this activity? They “find it amusing” that mentally ill people “do the things they do.” After his best friend Rideout — they had “been to hospitals together” — killed himself, the guards put him in Rideout’s cell, he said, refusing to move him. They did after he cut himself.
In his 31 months at the prison for robbery and assault, Caison said he spent half the time in the supermax because of fights and cutting up. He spent “eleven months straight” there before he was released from the solitary confinement of the supermax’s mental-health unit right onto the street in late 2007.
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