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Maines Reduction of Solitary

Maines Reduction of Solitary

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Published by Tlecoz Huitzil

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Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: Tlecoz Huitzil on Oct 23, 2011
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 Photo by jakesmome via Flickr 
By Lance Tapley
Thursday, July 21, 2011 09:30
Maine's Dramatic Reduction of Solitary Confinement
The state’s new governor and correctionscommissioner have sharply reducedprisoners in solitary without a rise inviolence. They may have shown other statesa way out of the supermax morass.
Solitary confinement has become morecontentious nationally. First there was thecontroversy over the isolation of BradleyManning, the soldier arrested for allegedlygiving classified documents to WikiLeaks.Then, earlier this month, more than 6,000inmates in California prisons began a hunger strike to protest its use at the Pelican Bayprison's Security Housing Unit or "supermax."As of Thursday, several hundred California prisoners are still on strike, and the weakening condition of some maysoon 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 wayout of the sad, expensive morass that super-maximum-security solitary confinement has become.
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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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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 alsoquickly made personnel changes. In the spring he fired two associate commissioners; and last month hedismissed four Maine State Prison guard captains along with the prison’s controversial security chief, a veterandeputy warden whom prisoners, prison critics and former employees had long accused of dealing harshly withboth 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 avicious circle, as an inmate's rage or mental problems grew because of the isolation, his protests added time tohis supermax stay.If he was driven to throw feces at guards — a common supermax phenomenon — he could have years added tohis 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 thepast, 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 thereunnecessarily;* stopped the once-frequent brutal “cell extractions” of uncooperative and often mentally ill inmates; therehave been none since May;* required guards to use what Ponte calls “informal sanctions” to discipline unruly prisoners, like takingaway 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 LongCreek Youth Development Center, a lockup for adolescents.Reflecting his background (he has run both the chief state psychiatric hospital and the state center for thedevelopmentally 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 LongCreek.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 intwo 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.RobinMansfiWilliamMai FeTed Ge
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