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Bill to define ‘solitary confinement’ advances, but disagreements remain

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

The Maine House gave initial approval on Tuesday to a bill dealing with "solitary confinement" in Maine prisons. But as Tuesday’s debate highlighted, lawmakers can't agree on terminology, never mind whether solitary confinement is still in used in Maine.

If there's one thing that mental health experts, state corrections officials and criminal justice reform advocates all seem to agree upon it's that is that prolonged isolation is not healthy for incarcerated individuals. But during a public hearing in Augusta last month, Commissioner Randall Liberty with the Maine Department of Corrections insisted the state no longer uses "solitary confinement," despite hours of testimony from people claiming they or their family members were isolated for days, weeks or even months.

Rep. Grayson Lookner said that's why Maine needs a baseline for that conversation. During a floor speech in the Maine House on Tuesday, the Portland Democrat explained that his bill, LD 696, has proposed defining solitary confinement as quote "confinement in a cell for more than 22 hours per 24-hour day."

"And if it's true that it's not being used, that it's not a problem, then why not define it?” Lookner said. “So this is a very simple definition so we can have a common understanding of what I mean when I say 'solitary confinement.'"

There are, indeed, multiple ways of referring to the practice of separating prisoners from the rest of the prison community. Other terms include segregation, isolation and restrictive housing.

State corrections officials said violent prisoners who pose a safety threat to themselves or others are placed in an "administrative control unit" where they have access to educational programming and counseling, television and can leave their cells for four hours a day, when appropriate. At the time of last month’s public hearing on the bill, corrections officials said there were just seven people housed within an administrative control unit out of the nearly 1,600 residents of state correctional facilities.

But critics say solitary confinement still happens in Maine, even if it's called something else.

The Maine Department of Corrections has received national attention for dramatically reducing the number of residents isolated from others during the past decade. So the department argued Lookner's bill is unnecessary.

During a floor speech on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Richard Pickett of Dixfield recited verbatim some of the arguments that state corrections officials made to a legislative committee.

"There is no need to place a definition in statute for something that no longer is practiced here in Maine nor has been for some time,” said Pickett, a retired police chief. “It is an attempt to micromanage solutions to a problem that does not exist."

The Democratic-controlled House voted 78-58 to advance the bill, which now goes to the Senate for consideration. But Tuesday’s margin in the House would be inadequate to overturn a potential veto from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills – a former prosecutor and state attorney general – should the bill win final approval in both the House and Senate.