A still from "The Last Days of Solitary," a documentary filmed between 2014 and 2017 in the Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Courtesy of Frontline

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Amanda Swanberg is a graduate student at the University of Maine School of Social Work.

It’s hard to find Americans who are kinder and more selfless than the people of Maine. We take great care of our friends and neighbors and find creative ways to alleviate the suffering of others, regardless of what we may be struggling with ourselves. However, many Mainers are ignoring the suffering of people in solitary confinement, a practice which United Nations human rights experts have said can be a form of psychological and physical torture. Why aren’t more Maine citizens advocating in support of LD 696, An Act to Prohibit Solitary Confinement in Maine’s Corrections System? Misconceptions about solitary confinement in Maine may be partly to blame.

People think we already banned solitary confinement in Maine.

Similar legislation was before legislators over 10 years ago and was not passed, accordion to Maine Public. Since then, actions have been taken to reduce the number of inmates and the duration of their stay in solitary confinement. Though some facilities in Maine claim to not use the practice anymore, they continue to do so under a different name – “administrative control” in the case of the Maine State Prison, “room confinement” at Long Creek, and “segregation” at the Maine Correctional Facility.  

Some argue that solitary confinement protects vulnerable inmates from imminent danger and correctional officers need to have it available as a tool to manage difficult situations.

Solitary confinement can be an effective way to defuse violent situations that pose immediate danger to correctional officers, inmates and others who work in our prisons. LD 696 allows for the continued use of short-term solitary confinement with prompt mental health assessments in these cases.

Arguments have been made that there are no other tools that can effectively be used in place of solitary confinement.

With additional investment in mental health care for inmates, de-escalation is an alternative tool that could be available to correctional officers. It allows for a solitary cooling off period in an environment structured to reduce stress while inmates wait for a mental health assessment or other services they may need.

Some say that people that end up in solitary confinement deserve to be there.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more than 8 percent of inmates placed in solitary confinement have a serious mental health diagnosis. The practice is also used on children. Thirty-five percent of youth in juvenile detention centers will spend time in solitary confinement. More than half of all youth who die by suicide in juvenile detention have been isolated at one time during their incarceration. Children and people struggling with mental illness are vulnerable and need help, not more punishment.

Another misconception is that if you support a ban on solitary confinement, you don’t support correctional officers.

Correctional officers are at risk of developing PTSD symptoms from the constant hypervigilance and exposure to violence and trauma experienced in their workplace.

The American Addiction Centers reports that a correctional officer’s risk of developing PTSD is more than twice that of people in the military and other studies show it is four times what is experienced in the general public.  The Vera Institute of Justice has found that assignment in a solitary confinement unit can be even more stressful than working with the general population. 

We should not be asking correctional officers to commit acts of potential torture, which could increase their risk of developing PTSD. We also should not be asking officers to work outside the scope of their duties to manage mental health crisis situations without clinical training or support for any secondary and/or vicarious trauma they may experience.

A ban on solitary confinement and establishment of de-escalation alternatives, staffed by qualified mental health professionals, shows that we support our correctional officers and want safe working conditions for them.

We can move towards solutions that are humane, safe, effective and that will provide a better chance for incarcerated individuals to get the support they need to be successful when they reenter our communities. Please consider contacting your legislator in support of LD 696.