Inmates in solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren went on a hunger strike Monday to protest their living conditions, a prisoner advocacy group said Wednesday.

A group of five inmates in the Administrative Control Unit, the most restrictive section of the prison, refused meals starting Monday, but three had abandoned the effort by Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections said.

The hunger strike was first publicized by the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, which has been in touch with some of the prisoners in the unit. The unit, which now has nine prisoners and holds as many as 15, averaged about 12 people during October, according to data provided by the state, but it was unclear how long each stay lasted.

Inmates held there are locked in at least 22 hours each day, have no access to religious services and lack adequate medical and mental health treatment, inmate Nicholas Gladu told coalition staff in a series of text messages in which he outlined demands.

Gladu was sentenced in 2012 to serve 38 years for numerous sex crimes, including gross sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact against a child and multiple counts of possessing of child pornography.

In this most restrictive segregated housing where he now finds himself, cells are often no larger than a bathroom, said Jan Collins, an advocate with the coalition.

Some in the unit have spent months or years there, Collins said. One prisoner, Zachary Swain, who is serving seven years for a stabbing, has spent much of the last five years in some form of segregated isolation despite serious mental health problems, she said.

While in isolation, prisoners in the unit do not have any meaningful contact with other people each day, including during the two hours of recreation, when they are permitted to go into an outdoor cage slightly larger than their cells, Collins said.

“All major countries in the developed world have an outside body that is able to oversee what is going on in corrections,” said Collins, of Wilton. “All aspects of corrections is a black box here. There is no ombudsman for corrections. There is no oversight body that can go in and check on anything.”

Prison officials downplayed the hunger strike.

The two inmates who remain on strike have food in their cells purchased from the prison commissary that they are consuming and are being monitored by medical staff, and neither has refused water, said Anna Black, director of governmental affairs for the Maine Department of Corrections.

“The participating residents are engaging in dialogue with facility administration,” Black said without elaborating. She did not respond to questions about how many prisoners began the hunger strike on Monday.

Gladu said in messages to advocates that all nine people in the unit were on board, but it’s unclear whether all residents have participated at any point. Black refused to answer questions about how many people refused meals on Monday and Tuesday.

In August, corrections officials agreed to make changes to the solitary confinement system as part of a legal settlement with another inmate, Doug Burr, who was held in solitary confinement for two years. Burr’s attorney was awarded $177,000 in legal fees. The corrections department agreed to provide new training for  some correction officers and to set a 30-day limit on how long a person can stay in the segregated housing, unless the commissioner directly approves more time.

To get back to the general population, prisoners in segregated units have to work through a four-tier system that allows them to earn back privileges at each step. Prisoners on the lowest level are permitted two attempts per week to make 10-minute phone calls to family or friends. Gladu, who is on the lowest level, is demanding more frequent and substantial phone privileges.

“Even if the call does not go through, the ‘attempt’ still counts as an actual phone call,” Gladu wrote. “We want a reasonable amount of access to the phone each week to build and maintain our support network with family/friends.”

He also asked for more ways to pass the time and for greater access to television and education.

“There is also no meaningful access to gainful programming or vocational skills,” Gladu wrote, despite a policy that calls for “intensive programming” for the unit residents.

The protest comes as a Portland legislator is pursuing legislation to end solitary confinement in the state. When the Legislature reconvenes in 2022, Portland Rep. Grayson Lookner is expected to take up a new version of a bill held over from last session that calls for an end to the practice, said Peter Lehman, the legislative coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Defining solitary confinement can be difficult. Different states have adopted rules barring certain practices. In New York, for instance, a measure signed into law in 2021 limits restrictive confinement to 17 hours locked in each day for a maximum of 15 days before other requirements to provide assistance kick in.

Lehman said he is working with Lookner to reshape his bill to reflect practices that other states, including New York, have found to be effective.

“We don’t care what you call it, but if you have someone confined 17 hours a day, that’s segregated confinement,” Lehman said. “We don’t care if it’s in a special unit. We don’t care if it’s in their regular housing unit.”

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