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Inside Criminal Justice

Maine's Dramatic Reduction of Solitary Confinement

July 20, 2011 11:51:41 pm

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.

Across the country, at least 25,000 inmates are in state supermax facilities — generally, in 23-hour-a-day isolation — and another 11,000 are in federal solitary confinement.

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.

Officials Fired

A 64-year-old turnaround specialist who had straightened out some of America's most violent prisons, Ponte also quickly made personnel changes. In the spring he fired two associate commissioners; and last month he dismissed four Maine State Prison guard captains along with the prison’s  controversial security chief, a veteran deputy warden whom prisoners, prison critics and former employees had long accused of dealing harshly with both inmates and staff.

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.

If he was driven to throw feces at guards — a common supermax phenomenon — he could have years added to his sentence subsequent to a conviction for assault. 

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."

The Model: Success with Juveniles

Heading up the committee overseeing the reforms is Rodney Bouffard, superintendent of South Portland’s Long Creek Youth Development Center, a lockup for adolescents.

Reflecting his background (he has run both the chief state psychiatric hospital and the state center for the developmentally disabled), Bouffard has a psychological-treatment approach to corrections.

"Good treatment is good security," he says.

Bouffard got Ponte's attention because he can point to the low recidivism rate of offenders released from Long Creek.

Since he and his team took charge nearly ten years ago, the Department of Corrections claims a one-year recidivism rate drop from 75 percent to between 15 percent and 20 percent. Moreover, there was a reduction in two years from 419 to 15 annual instances of increasingly brief solitary confinement.

Ponte is using Long Creek as a model for the prison system, even though Long Creek's "residents" are kids.

This choice recognizes that many inmates have mental illness. In the Warren supermax, over half have been diagnosed as seriously mentally ill (16 currently are in a special mental-health unit).

Ponte's choice also recognizes that punishment has "negative results. There's no study ever done that shows a punishment model gets good results," says Bartlett "Barry" Stoodley, associate corrections commissioner for juveniles.

"The punishment is what the court gives, the sentence," Ponte says. "We're not in the business of punishment, but corrections. We've got a lot to learn from the juvenile system."

But, he adds, "It's going to take a philosophical change" in the department.

Quiet and unpretentious, Ponte surprised reformers with his receptivity to progressive ideas because he came to Maine from the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America, which has seen its share of prisoner-abuse scandals. But for most of his career he worked for public systems.

In the 1980s in Massachusetts Ponte cleaned up violent Walpole prison, earning him a Boston Globe accolade as "the boy wonder" of state corrections. In the early 2000s he did the same at Shelby County Jail in Memphis, where gangs had sponsored "Thunderdome" fights among inmates.

He went to Maine recommended not only by his correctional colleagues but also, for fairness and responsiveness, by prisoner-rights advocates.

An aide to Gov. LePage said at Ponte's confirmation hearing in February that Ponte was brought to Maine to fix the prison system's problems. Although LePage is a member of the Tea Party-supported crop of Republican governors, with an agenda that includes reductions in taxes and state spending, he is progressive in sharply condemning the fact that prisons and jails have become de facto asylums.

Not Just the Commissioner

By no means are LePage and Ponte solely responsible for the reforms.

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.

The bill had stirred up a statewide discussion, with the Maine branch of the ACLU and churches affiliated with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) playing major roles.

National and Maine experts testified at the bill’s hearing that extended prisoner isolation deteriorates brains and behavior and, under international law, is increasingly considered torture.

Ed NOTE: For more on this, please see "The Anti-Supermax Battle Broadens," The Crime Report, May 17, 2010.

Although the corrections department had opposed the study, a group of mid-level corrections officials nevertheless worked for a year diligently researching supermax incarceration.

Delivered to the state’s Criminal Justice Committee early this year, their report  signals a stunning turnaround in official thinking about the Warren supermax and the 22-cell SMU at the medium-security Maine Correctional Center at Windham, near Portland.

The report doesn’t oppose solitary confinement per se, but it offers pull-no-punches recommendations to reduce its use and make both SMUs more humane.

The report fell into receptive hands.

With Ponte, says the head of his department's clinical services, psychologist Joseph Fitzpatrick, "There's not a lot of meetings to talk about change.”

Eyes On Maine

In the only campaign similar to Maine's, the grassroots group Tamms Year Ten has tried for several years to improve conditions in the Illinois supermax.

The group twice had reform bills introduced in the legislature, "which we then dropped after reforms were promised. But the reforms never materialized," according to Laurie Jo Reynolds.

Recently, Tamms prisoners were allowed to make telephone calls, which had been promised "back in 2009 when they installed the telephones," she says.

Despite the slow pace of change in her state, Reynolds sees national consciousness of supermax issues expanding.  "Maine is the model” for reform, she says, noting that the state has not only set a template for facing its problems, but included advocates in the decision-making process.

John Humphries, program coordinator for Washington-based NRCAT, 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.

In New Mexico, the legislature this year called for a committee to be established to study solitary confinement's impact on inmates, its effectiveness in "reducing problems," and its cost.

The committee will include representatives of the corrections department, the state psychiatrists' and psychologists' associations, the ACLU, and religious groups. A draft report is due next year.

In Colorado, legislators this year watered down a bill that would have made it harder to put mentally ill prisoners in solitary. The new law instead establishes guidelines for the use of solitary and finances more mental-health programs.

But Humphries says a new corrections commissioner "seems open to implementing reforms." Anti-solitary movements, he says, also exist in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Virginia.

The Jury Is Still Out

Interviewed at the Maine State Prison, Joe Jackson, vice-president of the NAACP inmate chapter, reports that some guards are not happy with the changes.

Jim Bergin, a Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition member on the supermax reform committee, says the committee is grappling with the issue of how to re-educate guards: It's "probably the biggest problem we’re dealing with.”

Ponte acknowledges resistance among the staff, but “I’m holding all of their feet to the fire.”

With time and training — he has increased guard training — he believes those who oppose what he’s doing will come around.

There are other obstacles. Apprehensive about inmates with isolation-exacerbated behavioral problems being released into the general inmate population, reformers have pushed for more prisoner mental-health care. (Mississippi provided considerable mental-health care for its ex-supermax inmates.)

But providing more mental-health care may bump into a financial obstacle.

Three times as much money is spent annually per-prisoner at Long Creek ($149,000) than at the state prison ($47,000).

Long Creek is a smaller institution and therefore its overhead is higher, but its treatment also involves a lot of psychotherapy, and its many high-school and college courses contribute to its success in maintaining order and improving recidivism numbers.

By contrast, little inmate mental-health care or education takes place at the prison.

With savings from reducing supermax incarceration, Ponte may be able to do more for the mentally ill. And "some things will be at no cost," he says. Plus: "We will use current staff in different roles, and we will see what additional cost remains after we get through that process."

So far there has been no big ramping up of inmate programs and, given a strained state budget, extra money for them would be hard to come by.

Still, the reformers are optimistic.

"It's still early, and the challenge will be to sustain these changes over time," says the ACLU's Fahti of the Maine supermax reforms. "But this is a very promising start."

Lance Tapley is a frequent contributor to The Crime Report and a 2010 John Jay/H.F. Guiggenheim Reporting Fellow. This article draws on reporting done for The Portland Phoenix in Maine. The author welcomes comments from readers.

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