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Prison Officials Say Solitary is Necessary for Safety, but Others Want to Reduce Its Use

Elizabeth Noble
Maine State Prison in Warren in 2013.

Editor's note: This story is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

WARREN, Maine — There are, at any given time in the United States, an estimated 80,000 prisoners confined to some type of isolation.

The long-term effects of solitary — anxiety, depression and even hallucinations — have been well documented, and the United Nations' expert on torture has said that "indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days" should be ended.

Here in Maine, the Department of Corrections says it has dramatically reduced the use of this type of segregation, and is reporting fewer assaults, hospitalizations and an overall safer environment at the Maine State Prison. But some inmates are still spending months and even years in segregation for reasons that the DOC says are necessary.

There are some prisoners who are considered so violent and dangerous that they cannot be housed in general population. They're placed in segregation in the Special Management Unit of the Maine State Prison. That means they're confined to a small cell with a toilet and a sink.

How long they are kept there and how they are managed depends on a threat assessment made by staff, according to Deputy Corrections Commissioner Rodney Bouffard.

"Just recently we had an inmate seriously assault another inmate with a weapon, so obviously that inmate will spend 60 days in segregation and then, essentially, a recommendation will be made for him to be admitted to the Administrative Controls Unit," he says.

The ACU is the most restrictive of the housing units. Prisoners are allowed fewer visits from the outside world and fewer privileges in general. They're typically locked up 23 hours a day.

Credit Maine Department of Corrections figures
Maine Department of Corrections figures

"Now, people will ask how long are they going to be down there?" Bouffard says. "It is not about doing time. It's about demonstrating the skills that you need to demonstrate so that we can be assured that when we put you back in general population that you're not going to present the health and safety risk that you presented prior to being committed to ACU."

To do that, prisoners have to complete educational programs the prison assigns, participate in groups when asked and then demonstrate the behaviors they've learned. Bouffard says it's a progressive system that earns the prisoner more privileges along the way.

"It's not definite," says Douglas Burr, in his 18th month of solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren. "It doesn't mean, you do these programs we're gonna let you out."

Interviewed from behind a heavy glass barrier, he's difficult to hear, an interpreter speaks for him in the radio version this story.

Burr says he has tried to do whatever he has been asked in order to get out of segregation, but feels that the goal posts have been moved.

"Since I've been down here I've completed three programs," he says. "I've taken two college courses toward my bachelor's. So, I go to my six-month review and I was told I need more time for evaluation, all right? With no, if you do this, if you do that, we'll think about releasing you back to the general population. There's none of that and it's psychologically damaging because you get your hopes up."

Unlike most other prisoners in the ACU, Burr has not been violent and hasn't had serious disciplinary problems. Prison officials say he's considered a safety threat, but haven't said why.

Credit Maine Department of Corrections figures
Maine Department of Corrections figures

Bouffard declined to discuss Burr's case because of a pending court appeal. He says he understands that for some inmates, the progression back to the general population doesn't happen fast enough.

"I can tell you of some situations where we've moved some of the inmates out a little too quickly and they end up doing something in general pop. and then returning right back, returning to segregation," Bouffard says. "So, it's about seeing true change and mitigating potential risk."

"There needs to be transparency," says Larry Reid, a correctional consultant for the National Institute for Corrections and other organizations. "The person needs to know why they're in segregation and what the expectations are to get out of segregation and that needs to be clear, documented and forthright."

Reid recently retired as deputy director of prisons for the state of Colorado. But he began his career as a corrections officer and worked his way up to warden, including in a high-risk facility.

"My belief is that there is an immediate need to segregate a person who is exhibiting violent and-or dangerous behavior immediately," he says. "But my belief over the years has realized that long term is not the answer."

Instead, Reid says, time spent in segregation should be limited if it's to be used as an effective means for changing behavior.

Reid works with prisons to strike the right balance. He says he is not familiar with the state of Maine, which Bouffard says is proud of its own approach to segregation.

Credit Maine Department of Corrections figures
Maine Department of Corrections figures

"Our fights are down," he says. "The assaults are down. Significant assaults, broken jaws, significant cutting and that sort of thing. Those are down as well. We're seeing far less people going to the hospital which, frankly, is good for the inmates, good for the staff. It also saves the state a lot of money."

For example, Bouffard says workers' compensation claims have dropped from about $400,000 spent in 2013 to just $40,000 spent through September of this year. And on the day of this interview, the number of prisoners in segregation was 44, about half the number of a few years ago, even as the prison population has increased.

Joseph Jackson, a former inmate who now works with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says corrections officials have also added and redefined segregation.

"Now they've shifted solitary confinement and made another name," he says. "It's called the Special Living Unit. So it's not really gone. It's under another name."

Corrections officials say there are about 30 inmates in the Special Living Unit, where inmates are separated from the general population but have more opportunity for socialization than they would on the ACU. They say most prisoners are eventually able to work their way back to general population.

Burr's attorney Eric Mehnert, meanwhile, says there's a fundamental issue at stake.

"The fundamental issue that we're seeing is a civil rights violation," he says. "It's whether or not the continued use of segregation as a security measure is a constitutional violation of Mr. Burr's due process rights and his rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment."

Mehnert says a Superior Court judge has agreed to review that question as part Burr's administrative appeal.