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 becomecommon over the past 25 years.Across the country, at least25,000inmates are in state supermax facilities — generally, in 23-hour-a-dayisolation — andanother 11,000are 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 "cuttingup," 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 anearly-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 backinto the prison general population. Although wardens have defended supermaxes as necessary to decreaseprison 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 Parchmansupermax population by 90 percent, also without upheaval. But reforms there were forced by an American CivilLiberties 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 reformsare quite recent, activists in other states and the nation's capital are looking closely at Maine and drawing lessonsfor their own anti-supermax efforts."These reforms, if sustained, will make Maine a national leader in rolling back the excessive and unnecessary useof solitary confinement," says David Fathi, head of the ACLU's Washington, D.C.-basedNational 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 recommendationsadopted. Ponte even appointed two members of theMaine Prisoner Advocacy Coalitionto 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 lawmakershad sided with the former corrections commissioner in defending solitary confinement.
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