A new article in The Crime Report describes a “dramatic reduction of solitary confinement” in Maine State Prison. The changes have taken place under the leadership of a new Commissioner of Corrections, Joseph Ponte–and under a Republican governor and state legislature. But as author Lance Tapley points out, the path to reform was paved by a grassroots political movement that last year pressed for legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and jails. While that effort failed, it clearly influenced the subsequent reforms.
In a matter of weeks this spring, [new Corrections] 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.
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…
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.
The article details the specific changes in prison policy that have led to a reduction in solitary confinement:
Ponte’s reforms go beyond the SMU, changing how discipline is enforced throughout the 915-inmate, all-male, maximum-security prison located in the coastal village of Warren.
In the past, guards threw prisoners into the SMU for small infractions, like getting themselves tattooed. Then, in a vicious circle, as an inmate’s rage or mental problems grew because of the isolation, his protests added time to his supermax stay…
Among other changes, Ponte:
- ordered that inmates not be placed in isolation longer than 72 hours without his personal approval;
- imposed a seven-day limit on supermax stays for inmates being investigated for in-prison crimes (in the past, a prisoner might languish for months as an investigation dragged on without him being charged);
- reclassified and moved out of the supermax many prisoners who simply appeared to be there unnecessarily;
- stopped the once-frequent brutal “cell extractions” of uncooperative and often mentally ill inmates; there have been none since May;
- required guards to use what Ponte calls “informal sanctions” to discipline unruly prisoners, like taking away commissary or recreation privileges, as alternatives to “the hole.”
Tapley also outlines the process by which a “home-grown prison-reform movement” was able to influence state policy on the use of solitary confinement:
Ponte landed in the state as a rethinking was taking place on the part of corrections and elected officials, newspaper editorial writers, and others. They became more concerned about the humaneness, health effects, usefulness and cost of solitary confinement.
The new ideas had been promoted by a home-grown prison-reform movement that made curbing solitary its top priority.
Ponte and his committee guiding the reforms have as their playbook a bold report commissioned last year by the legislature at the behest of these activists.
The report resulted from a study of solitary confinement that legislators ordered as a substitute for a bill they defeated that had been pushed by prisoner-rights, civil-liberties, religious, and mental-health groups. The bill would have greatly restricted the use of isolation.
Problems remain–among them, the fact that the report’s aim is to reduce, not eliminate, solitary confinement. In addition, it faces resistance from guards, and a lack of adequate mental health care services for “inmates with isolation-exacerbated behavioral problems being released into the general inmate population.” Nevertheless, Tapley writes, advocates in other states and on the national level are looking to the experience of Maine. “John Humphries, program coordinator for Washington-based NRCAT [National Religious Campaign Against Torture], says Maine’s anti-solitary effort is ‘providing inspiration to similar efforts emerging in other states’ — especially because NRCAT and the ACLU are promoting Maine as a model for political action.”