AUGUSTA – A bill to ban solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates was all but stopped Monday in the House, although a resolve asking the state Department of Corrections to review its policies was passed.

The House voted 74-68 in favor of the resolve, effectively ending an emotional campaign to change the treatment of mentally ill prisoners in Maine.

“We can always look at what we are doing,” said Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, who spoke in support of the resolve. “We can always strive to do things a little better.”

But another committee member, Rep. Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, said the prison system already has adequate oversight.

He praised progress made by the corrections commissioner, a new Maine State Prison warden and the Board of Visitors, which meets with the staff and prisoners to discuss grievances.

“We don’t need to tell them to do it more,” Sykes said. “They are constantly in the mode of policy review and correction.”

Rep. Benjamin Pratt, D-Eddington, said there is a perception in society that when somebody does wrong and goes to prison, we can “wash our hands” of them. “Like it or not, these people are our citizens, and 95 percent of them will someday be released to the general population,” Pratt said.

Corrections officials have said that many prisoners are mentally ill, and that special management units addressed by the bill, L.D. 1611, are essential for punishing inmates who commit crimes in prison, and for protecting some inmates from themselves or others.

Department of Corrections Sgt. Chris Coffin cited what he said was an incident last week at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where an inmate had trouble coping with his mental illness. The inmate told an officer that he was losing self-control and asked to be removed from the general population, Coffin said.

“He truly felt he was going to hurt somebody,” Coffin said during an interview Monday outside the House chamber.

Coffin said that he and a caseworker praised the man for recognizing what he was capable of doing and taking steps to prevent himself from acting out. The man was moved to seclusion on Wednesday, Coffin said. On Friday, he was returned to the general prison population.

In Maine, some inmates stay in secluded cells — with lights always on and no stimulation other than three books a week — for months or even years.

Earlier in the legislative session, psychiatrists testified before the committee that solitary confinement can exacerbate or even create mental illnesses.

“In this great society, have we not evolved in our treatment of human beings well beyond the use of solitary confinement?” said Rep. Sean Flaherty, D-Scarborough. “Don’t we have more appropriate ways of enforcing our laws and rehabilitating our inmates?”

The Senate passed the House resolve 18-15 Monday night and sent it back to the House.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]