WARREN – In 1890 the U.S. Supreme Court denounced extensive-duration solitary confinement for causing inmates to become violently insane.
For the past 18 months, Maine State Prison officials have been using an in-house disciplinary system, with more carrot than stick.
Associate Commissioner Ryan Thornell, Department of Communications, said “When a prisoner is placed in restrictive housing for whatever reason it is, when they come in the door, they know what to expect. In terms of the process, in terms of behavior, and progression in order to eventually transition out into general population.”
Not everyone is ready to hail the innovations as an improvement.
Former Prison Chaplin, Reverend Stan Moody said “I’m a skeptic. When things are quiet that’s the way they want them. They don’t really want the public to have any knowledge of what’s going on in there.”
The program provides opportunities for the inmates to work their way back to general population through attitude adjustments. It’s based on levels or steps the prisoners can attain.
Warden Randall Liberty said “Each one of those steps is a step down to more freedom, to more opportunities, to more programming. And they see a clear path and that works very well.”
The unit is called the administrative control unit. Now, the 23-hour seclusion model of prisoner treatment has gone out the window.
Commissioner Thornell stated “We no longer have prisoners who just sit down there, wondering, ‘am I going to be down here for two, three, four years. They know exactly what’s expected of them.”
The administrative control unit’s program is being credited with drastically reducing the number of prisoners removed from the prison’s general population. “I often ask my people, the corrections officers, ‘how many people do you think are truly evil here? Very, very few. Most of them have some underlying issue that brought them here.” said Warden Liberty.
Reverend Moody added “This idea that we’ve got a certain percentage of people who are inherently evil and that we’ve got to keep them separated from the general population, there’s got to be a better way of doing it.”
Some prisoner-rights advocates say this is just a new-and-improved form of seclusion. Former inmate and prisoner advocate, Joseph Jackson said “It is not like it was when I was placed there, however, any solitary confinement is still torture.”
Corrections officials, said prisoners who have been through the step-program are less likely to return to the ACU, or at least not for the same rule violation.
Jackson said “We applaud many of the changes the department is making, of the changes Joseph Fitzpatrick has made, but still that doesn’t mean that there’s not a long way to go.”
The program here has only been in place for a year and a half, but already prison officials are quite pleased with the results. Recently, we visited the prison mid-afternoon, in the middle of the week. The so-called restrictive living unit was quieter than many libraries.
Society may be changing it’s view on solitary confinement, but Jackson said a civil society still needs to treat it’s criminal element better. He said “We recognize that solitary is a bad thing. But we still continue to recognize that model of keeping people locked down as a way of trying to evoke change.”