Randall Liberty is seen in this file photo from 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine’s top prison official denied that the state’s penitentiaries use solitary confinement, contradicting hours of emotional testimony from advocates and people affected by the practice and drawing criticism from lawmakers during a legislative hearing on Wednesday.

Prison officials and the public have disagreed in the past over what kind of treatment constitutes solitary confinement, but during a testimony before the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty denied that his department uses it even by its own definition and criticized a bill seeking to outlaw it as “an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“The Maine Department of Corrections does not currently use the practice of solitary confinement,” Liberty said.  

His testimony presented a starkly different reality than supporters of the bill, who told stories of how they or their loved ones have suffered prolonged isolation inside Maine’s jails and prison as recently as this year. It also contradicted what an official told the Bangor Daily News last year in response to questions about the prison’s policies.

His comments drew immediate skepticism from committee co-chair Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, and the bill’s sponsor, Grayson Lookner, D-Portland.

“How can I just say, ‘Nope, not gonna believe all those Maine people,” Warren asked Liberty.

The exchange underscores a fundamental disagreement over what’s actually happening inside the state’s correctional facilities, which will pose a serious obstacle in discussions of the controversial prison tactic. Liberty pointed out that Maine has a reputation as a national leader for its ongoing efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement and claimed testimony from critics referred to practices the department ended years ago, but some lawmakers seemed mistrustful of the department’s characterizing of the practice.

Warren described her recent visit to the women’s prison in Windham, where she witnessed a transgender woman who “spends a lot of time locked up by herself.”

“I saw that with my own eyes and that was not over five or six years ago,” she said.  

Warren also cited a recent Bangor Daily News investigation that documented 25-year-old Zachary Swain’s yearslong plight in prolonged isolation at the Maine State Prison. A leading national expert described Swain’s treatment as solitary confinement, defining the term as any prolonged isolation that deprives a person of meaningful social contact.

Swain entered the prison in 2015 and is set to be released later this month. In a follow-up article, the Knox County district attorney compared his experience behind bars to torture.

“This is from October,” Warren said, after reading from the article.

Liberty did not directly address the discrepancy presented by his testimony, but defended his statements.

“No one’s trying to be deceptive, no one’s trying to shell-game anything,” he said.

When pressed by Lookner, Liberty, who previously served as warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren, said he defines solitary confinement using the industry standard of two hours or less out-of-cell time a day, although the department uses the term “restrictive housing.”

However, stories of prisoners leaving their cells for an hour a day to spend time in a “dog kennel outside” are long gone, Liberty said. “That produced anxiety, trauma, it was neglectful. We walked away from that a long time ago.”

Today, prisoners too dangerous to be in the general population are housed in the Maine State Prison’s Administrative Control Unit, where they have access to education programs, entertainment, mental health services and up to seven hours a day out of their cells, he said.

But lawmakers and other supporters of Lookner’s bill appeared frustrated over the changing terms that officials have used to describe forms of isolation over the years, muddying the ability to understand how solitary confinement is playing out in Maine.

For example, Swain has been housed in the administrative control unit since the spring, his mother, Lori Swain, told lawmakers.

“But it’s still the same solitary confinement pod where he’s served 21-24 hours a day with no human contact for most of six years,” she said.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.