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In compelling testimony before the Legislature and conversations with the Bangor Daily News, recent inmates within Maine’s correctional facilities and their families have shared horrific stories of being held in solitary confinement.
Also in testimony and in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News, Randall Liberty, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said his department does not use solitary confinement. It does, he said, use an administrative control unit to separate inmates who pose a danger to other inmates, staff and themselves. At the time of his Feb. 9 testimony, Liberty said seven inmates were held in the unit. Those held in the administrative unit are allowed to engage with other inmates and receive needed services, he said.
This parsing of language is the beginning of a difficult problem with solitary confinement, one that lawmakers, who have an oversight responsibility, should help the state move beyond.
A bill being considered by the Legislature originally sought to ban solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons and jails. That bill was amended in January to define and restrict solitary confinement and it would have created a state ombudsman to oversee the state’s correctional practices. That amended version was rejected by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
The prohibition on solitary confinement in LD 696 likely would have been meaningless without a clearer understanding of — and agreement upon — what happens within the Maine State Prison and other prisons and jails, which is why an ombudsman was an important piece of the amended legislation.
Backers of the legislation are now asking simply that a definition of solitary confinement be written into state statute so there is clear, broad understanding of what it means. A further amended version of the bill, to simply define solitary confinement as being held in isolation for more than 22 hours a day, was narrowly passed by the committee last week.
This is a start, but much more can be done to move beyond the current debate over whether inmates are being improperly held in isolation.
Norman Kehling told us that he was held in solitary numerous times over a seven-year period at the Maine State Prison. Solitary, he said “puts you through a change you’ll never forget.”
Kehling acknowledged that there is “a time and place for segregation.” But, he said, its use must be limited and that it should not be used as punishment. He stressed the need for treatment and programs to address underlying conditions.
Another former prisoner, Bobby Payzant, told the BDN that he still struggles today because of his time in solitary. “It is dehumanizing to the core,” he said. When prisoners are held in solitary, he said, they need to act out in a bad way to get attention. When they act out, they usually get attention — and more time in solitary confinement — perpetuating a harmful cycle.
Both men praised Liberty for improving conditions in state-run correctional facilities, but worried that the debate over the term “solitary confinement” obscured the harm any type of isolation — no matter what it is called — was having on inmates. Kehling and Payzant interact inmates with through their work and volunteer efforts.
We realize that managing a correctional facility and the hundreds of people in state custody is a complex task, and we acknowledge that the Department of Corrections has made strides in the treatment of inmates. But we are troubled that the department continues to downplay the assessments of those who were recently held in isolation, suggesting that they are not telling the truth.
“People living in our facilities do not have to report the facts,” Ryan Thornell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections, recently told lawmakers.
Lawmakers should want a clear definition of solitary confinement and better information about when and how isolation is being used precisely because there are such vastly different descriptions of what is happening in the state’s correctional facilities.
Everyone in this debate should be able to agree that some inmates may sometimes pose safety threats that need to be managed. Most of these threats stem from unmet mental health and substance use disorder needs. Addressing those needs must remain a priority.
As we’ve written many times before, we realize that correctional facilities are unfortunately left filling a critical gap in the state’s behavioral health network. Without sufficient capacity to treat Mainers with these needs in community settings, too many of them end up in jails and prisons, where staff are already stretched thin and, sometimes, not properly trained and equipped to deal with complex behaviors.
The solution, however, cannot be to hold these people in inhumane conditions, no matter what it is called.