Zachary Swain's tattooed hands rest on his lap at the Maine State Prison infirmary on August 9. Since 2018, Swain, 25, has been hospitalized 14 times for swallowing things -- spoons, toothbrushes, copper wire, fingernail clippers. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

An emotionally charged Maine campaign to ban solitary confinement appeared doomed Tuesday after a key lawmaker proposed gutting a watered-down version of the bill and denied hours of testimony that the practice happens here.

After the Maine House passed a bill last month to establish a universal definition of solitary confinement, a far narrower version of an original bill that would have banned the practice, Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-Biddeford, put forward an alternative that more closely aligns with the bill’s opponents: It strikes any existing mention of solitary confinement from where it currently appears in state statute.

“It’s not happening,” Deschambault, co-chair of the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee, said on the senate floor of the practice.

Her comments contradicted hours of testimony from supporters of the bill who say they or their loved ones suffered prolonged periods of isolation in Maine prisons and jails. They also conflict with what officials told the Bangor Daily News last year during an investigation of one man’s confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

Despite that, the senate unanimously approved Deschambault’s amendment, setting up a likely stalemate between the two legislative chambers on how to address the controversial prison tactic. The impasse suggests how unwilling opponents are to discuss, let alone regulate, Maine’s correctional practices. Prison and jail officials have also denied solitary confinement happens here in discussions of the bill.

“What’s been voted on in the Senate in no way, shape or form gets us closer to understanding how these practices are being used in Maine’s prisons and jails,” said Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor. “I’m frankly flabbergasted that we can’t even agree on a definition that most lay people already accept.”

An original version of the bill sought to ban solitary confinement and establish other oversight measures of prison segregation. But disagreement over whether the practice occurs in Maine prisons and jails hampered policy discussions, prompting Lookner to scale back the proposal to create a universal definition in law that everyone could agree on.

That amended version would define solitary confinement as at least 22 hours alone in a cell a day, a commonly accepted understanding of the practice. A majority of the criminal justice committee recommended the bill become law. The House passed it in late March.

“The House was certainly in support of at least defining solitary confinement so we could have a conversation about humane treatment in Maine’s prison and jails,” said Jan Collins of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, one of the bill’s primary backers.

The senate’s response, which not only rejected that attempt at clarity but attempts to undermine future conversations by eliminating the term from law entirely, was “surprising, disappointing, and unexpected,” she said.

Deschambault, a former social worker with the Department of Corrections, did not respond to requests for comment.

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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.