Solitary confinement is counterproductive

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According to Dr. Terry Kupers, a leading psychiatrist with a deep background on solitary confinement, “human beings require some degree of social interaction and productive activity to establish and sustain a sense of identity and to maintain a grasp on reality.”

For nearly 30 years, Maine People’s Alliance has fought for the health of all Mainers, and preventing the severe mental and emotional damage done to Maine’s prison population fits well within our mission. That’s why MPA applauds two of our state legislators for having the courage to address this issue. The committee report supported by Rep. James Schatz (D-Blue Hill) and Sen. John Nutting (D-Leeds) on LD 1611 provides constitutional safeguards and best practices in order to ensure that long-term use of segregation in Maine prisons occurs only when absolutely necessary.

Segregation or special housing, as currently referenced in Maine’s correctional policies, is a euphemism for solitary confinement. Many Mainers do not realize that solitary confinement continues to be a tool used by Maine’s Department of Corrections on hundreds of our state’s inmates, but it is.

An inmate is isolated in a 7-by-12-foot cell at a minimum of 23 hours a day, permitted just five hours per week of out-of-cell exercise, one phone call every seven days, and one visit per week. The cell doors are solid metal, causing inmates to shout in order to be heard by staff or adjacent inmates. Lights are on around the clock. Inmates do not have access to television or radio, and are permitted only three books per week. While staff regularly monitor inmates, meaningful social contact rarely happens. This kind of confinement does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners or prepare them for life after their release. Instead, it degrades their mental and physical health.

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Inmates in segregation are known to experience massive free-floating anxiety, incessant cleaning or pacing in the cell, paranoid ideas, sleep disturbances, and problems concentrating and remembering. Those with pre-existing mental illnesses can have psychotic breakdowns and severe affective disorders and often self-mutilate or attempt suicide. Reports from the Maine State Prison corroborate these findings. It is for these reasons that the Maine Psychiatric Association supports the Schatz/Nutting report on LD 1611.

According to the Maine Department of Corrections, 43 inmates have been released directly to the streets from solitary confinement — a practice beneficial to neither the prisoner nor the community. Over 100 prisoners have been confined in segregation for longer than 45 days, and over half of the inmates have an Axis 1 mental health diagnosis.

“If the goal of the corrections system is to ensure public safety, then segregation is a counterproductive failure,” said Dr. Janis Petzel, the association’s president. “Solitary creates and exacerbates mental illness and cripples social skills. Prisoners who have experienced segregation and who are released back into the community relapse back into criminal behavior sooner and more aggressively than their general prison population counterparts.”

The American Bar Association says that “segregated housing should be for the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions practicable and consistent with the rationale for placement and with the progress achieved by the prisoner.”

We believe all of this dramatically proves how solitary confinement damages the health of Mainers. And for those who consider themselves supporters of health care reform, we ask you to join us in our wider view of what that means.

As an organization with 32,000 members from Kittery to Fort Kent, we believe the reform of solitary confinement is one of the most important and doable actions the Legislature can take this session. Those in our state’s custody should not be exposed to practices that encourage recidivism and have permanent psychiatric impacts. It’s morally wrong and counter-productive.

The time has come for Maine’s correctional policies to change as outlined in the Schatz/Nutting report of LD 1611, An Act to Ensure the Humane Treatment of Special Management Prisoners.

Ben Chin is the immigrant rights community organizer for Maine People’s Alliance.  He lives and works in Lewiston.

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