Legislators this week will begin work on bills that aim to improve life for prisoners in Maine and prohibit prosecution of people who are present at drug overdoses and call for help.

The work sessions of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Thursday and Friday will provide the first sense of how receptive some lawmakers may be to banning solitary confinement statewide, regulating the cost of telephone and video calls for inmates, and barring the use of pepper spray and prone restraints at Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only youth prison.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and a union representative for workers at Long Creek testified Friday against the measure to ban the use of prone restraints and pepper spray. Liberty said staff need to know they have options in the face of out-of-control violence, and that passage of the bill would trigger an exodus of staff who would feel they did not have enough protections.

Advocates for children and formerly incarcerated youth say that such heavy-handed tactics are traumatic and counterproductive, and the experts hired by the state to examine a string of violent incidents at Long Creek last summer recommended that the youth prison end the use of pepper spray and prone restraints.

Maine corrections officials have slowly reduced the population at Long Creek to a couple dozen young people, but plans have not yet materialized to transition away from the model of a centralized youth lockup.

Another incarceration-focused bill would ban solitary confinement statewide, defining the practice as locking someone up for more than 20 hours in a 24-hour period. It would create a statewide definition for permissible “segregated confinement,” in which prisoners could be kept in their cells for a maximum of 17 to 20 hours each day. The bill would prohibit segregated confinement for vulnerable groups, including people over age 65 and pregnant women, limit the number of days anyone could spend in segregation and create a “confinement ombudsman” to oversee jail and prison conditions statewide.

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“Ultimately, we must find ways to reduce our state’s overreliance on incarceration to deal with issues of mental health and housing instability,” said the sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland. “In the meantime, nobody should be subjected to the horror and psychological damage that is created by prolonged isolation.”

Liberty testified neither for nor against the bill. He said the practice does not exist in Maine prisons. County jails are a different story, where some inmates are held for extended periods, alone for nearly every hour of the day for weeks on end, as punishment for acting out.

The ban on solitary confinement has the support of defense attorneys, formerly incarcerated people, mental health advocates and international groups that view solitary confinement as tantamount to torture. The Maine Sheriff’s Association opposes the bill as a rushed measure to address a complicated issue, and has said that should it pass, jail administrators would be stripped of a tool to keep other inmates safe from dangerous residents.

Another bill, which would limit fees associated with phone and video-calling services for inmates, has received an outpouring of support from formerly incarcerated people and their families, along with groups that help reintegrate those who have been incarcerated into society. The legislation would limit fees collected by jails and prisons, and guarantee inmates two free 15-minute phone calls each week.

The Maine Municipal Association also supports the bill as a way to help prevent people from reoffending after release, and cited a federal review of Maine’s inmate population that found 85 percent are indigent. Criminal defense attorneys testified about the difficulty of clients having to pay to speak to their attorneys, and urged a carve-out exempting attorney-client calls from fees.

Some people locked up at the Maine State Prison, where the per-minute cost to make a phone call is relatively low at 9 cents, are opposed to changing the current structure. About half of the per-minute fee at the state prison is redirected into an account to benefit inmates, who do not want that system upended.

The Maine Sheriff’s Association is opposed to the phone legislation. York County Sheriff William King Jr. said some sheriffs have already banded together to negotiate a better deal with Securus Technologies, which provides phone, video and entertainment services at all state jails. Each county’s needs and costs differ, making statewide legislation impractical, King said.

The lawmakers also will discuss an expansion of the state’s Good Samaritan Law. Under current statute, people who call in an overdose or help reverse one with the drug naloxone are protected from only a narrow list of drug crimes. The legislation would expand the protection to anyone present at the scene of an overdose and make it cover a broader range of criminal conduct.

Advocates say the bill is a necessary step to reduce the record number of overdose-related deaths in Maine, which last year reached an estimated 636. The Mills administration has expressed opposition to the bill. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said it would protect people who did nothing to assist a person who is overdosing and cover a wide array of crimes unrelated to the overdose.

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