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Courts and Crime

Proposed Legislation Would Ban Solitary Confinement in Maine

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Steve Miller
/
Associated Press
A guard looks over an empty inmate cell at the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, Conn., in 2001.

The ACLU of Maine, Disability Rights Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are among several groups supporting a bill to prohibit the use of solitary confinement in Maine jails and prisons.

The bill defines solitary confinement as segregation of a prisoner who has contact with another person fewer than three times in a 24-hour period.

At a public hearing on the bill Monday, supporters said that while the Maine Department of Corrections has reduced the number of residents in isolation in recent years, the practice needs to end.

Hannah Longley of Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness says extensive research has shown that solitary confinement causes severe physical and psychological harm, including anxiety, stress, depression and increased risk for psychosis and suicidal ideation.

"Although solitary confinement is typically utilized in terms of containment of behaviors or in punitive measures, it has been shown to increase anger and irritability, decrease impulse control and increase the risk for a possible violent outburst. By utilizing solitary confinement, the corrections setting is actually increasing the risk for the very reason was placed in it in the first place," Longley says.

There was no formal opposition to the bill. But Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty said residents are typically placed in isolation for safety reasons such as assaults on staff or other residents. He says there are currently fewer than eight residents in segregation whose average length of stay is less than a week.

He said the use of what is also known as "restrictive housing" has been curtailed by more than 72 percent over the last five years.

The bill's supporters applaud that downward trend, but they say Maine needs to do more to prevent the severe physical and psychological effects of isolation.

Lori Swain of Cape Elizabeth is among those who want the language of the bill strengthened. She says her autistic son is currently in solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

"Zach began swallowing metal and other objects and had emergency surgery several times this past year. This Fall he hung himself twice. One night he was found hanging and unconscious in his cell and was taken to the hospital in a coma," she says.

Swain says her son survived and was returned to the prison where he is hoping to access mental health treatment.

The Maine Legislature rejected similar legislation to prohibit the use of solitary confinement in the state correctional system more than a decade ago.