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The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.

1/12/10

THE TORTURE OF SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

James Ridgeway, Solitary Watch - Most Americans' knowledge of the Maine prison system probably ends with the grim, gray penitentiary depicted in The Shawshank Redemption. But the prison of Stephen King's imagination is a benign place compared with the current reality of incarceration in Maine's state prisons–especially its 100-man solitary confinement unit. Conditions in the lockdown unit have become the subject of public debate in recent years, and of a bill now making its way through the state legislature that would restrict and closely monitor the use of solitary confinement. If the bill is passed, Maine would become the first state in the union to directly confront this form of domestic torture through the legislative process.

One hundred out of some 900 cells at the Maine State Prison at Warren comprise what is euphemistically known as the Special Management Unit where prisoners live in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement (24 on weekends), allowed out only to take a shower, make a phone call, or exercise alone in what looks like the run in a dog kennel. About half of the inmates in the unit are there for disciplinary reasons, the other half because of special problems, mental or physical illness. . .

In 2005, Lance Tapley, a freelance journalist for the Portland Phoenix, began writing about what he called "Torture in Maine's Prisons." Tapley treated the good people of Maine to a series of articles documenting conditions in the SMU. In one article, accompanied by a video, Tapley describes guards dragging a prisoner out of his cell, naked and screaming, forcing him into restraint chair (an excerpt appears at the end of this post). In other articles, a mentally ill inmate is transferred from a state mental hospital, where he was undergoing treatment, to prison, where the treatment is stopped. An inmate who is found hanging in his cell is mocked by a guard who says "you can do better than that," and drags his feet in reporting the death to authorities. A sex offender with diabetes confined to a wheelchair is beaten to death in his cell. Supermax prisoners stage a hunger strike to protest conditions in the unit. One prisoner, Deane Brown, who speaks openly with Tapley and also reports on prisons for a community radio station, is harassed by corrections officials and then shipped off to a supermax in Maryland, in what his supporters call "punitive exile."

Tapley's reporting helped fuel a campaign by the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition and other reformers for a bill restricting the use of solitary confinement. They have organized themselves into the Maine Coalition Against the Abuse of Solitary Confinement. Last fall, Representative Bill Shatz, who serves on the criminal justice and public safety committee of the state legislature, introduced a bill that would limit use of solitary, ban brutal forms of restraint, and provide due process for inmates sent there. "Since Guantanamo, we keep seeing that the use of segregation and solitary confinement is not so much a treatment as a punishment and a control aspect. That just doesn't make any sense to me," Schatz told the Bangor Daily News. . .

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