Maine's Dramatic Reduction of Solitary Confinement
Photo by jakesmome via Flickr
The state’s new governor and corrections commissioner have sharply reduced prisoners in solitary without a rise in violence. They may have shown other states a way out of the supermax morass.
Solitary confinement has become more contentious nationally. First there was the controversy over the isolation of Bradley Manning, the soldier arrested for allegedly giving classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Then, earlier this month, more than 6,000 inmates in California prisons began a hunger strike to protest its use at the Pelican Bay prison's Security Housing Unit or "supermax."
As of Thursday, several hundred California prisoners are still on strike, and the weakening condition of some may soon require officials to choose between allowing inmates to die or force-feeding them.
Surprisingly, on the other side of the country the new conservative Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, and his new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, a veteran warden, may be able to show other states a way out of the sad, expensive morass that super-maximum-security solitary confinement has become.
Critics say solitary confinement is inhumane and counterproductive, and it costs two or three times regular imprisonment. Only the United States uses it for massive numbers of prisoners, a practice that has become common over the past 25 years.
In a matter of weeks this spring, Commissioner Ponte dramatically reformed the Maine State Prison’s supermax, the Special Management Unit or SMU. Like others across the country it had been plagued by inmates "cutting up," by suicides and suicide attempts, hunger strikes, inmate assaults on guards, guard assaults on inmates and, in Maine's case, unexplained inmate deaths.
Like its counterparts elsewhere, Maine’s SMU had been increasingly accused of being a torture chamber, especially for the mentally ill.
Ponte's major reform has been to quickly shrink the number of supermax prisoners by almost 60 percent, from a nearly-always-full 132 cells to, recently, 54.
One immediate result is that the unit is calmer, and no great disruption has occurred from putting inmates back into the prison general population. Although wardens have defended supermaxes as necessary to decrease prison violence, academic researchers say there's no evidence this is so.
Maine's experience so far supports the research.
Shrinking Supermax Numbers
Maine is not the first state to shrink its supermax numbers. In recent years Mississippi reduced its Parchman supermax population by 90 percent, also without upheaval. But reforms there were forced by an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit.
In Maine the reforms came about after a grassroots political campaign — and the appointment of a commissioner willing to listen to reformers.
In this respect, Maine is unique. Although its prison system is small and not fraught with gangs, and the reforms are quite recent, activists in other states and the nation's capital are looking closely at Maine and drawing lessons for their own anti-supermax efforts.
"These reforms, if sustained, will make Maine a national leader in rolling back the excessive and unnecessary use of solitary confinement," says David Fathi, head of the ACLU's Washington, D.C.-based National Prison Project.
"We've followed our colleagues in Maine with admiration, awe and envy," says Laurie Jo Reynolds, organizer of the campaign in Illinois to limit solitary confinement at the Tamms supermax.
Maine's own prison reformers are in a mild state of shock at seeing many of their long-time recommendations adopted. Ponte even appointed two members of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition to a Department of Corrections committee coordinating the reforms.
"For the first time in years we have a good relationship" with the commissioner, Judy Garvey, a coalition leader, told the Republican-dominated legislature's Criminal Justice Committee in May.
Committee members appeared pleased with Ponte's actions. A year previously, many of the same lawmakers had sided with the former corrections commissioner in defending solitary confinement.
The change in thinking about corrections in Maine has been astonishing.