“Frontline,” public television’s award-winning investigative program, will air a segment later this month on the reform of solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
“Solitary Nation” offers “a shocking look at the practice of isolation” and the effort to limit its use – an area in which Maine is recognized as a leader nationally, according to a news release announcing the show.
“We can either make them worse or we can rehabilitate them,” Maine State Prison Warden Rod Bouffard says in a segment included in a trailer for the program. The efforts of Bouffard and former Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to lessen the use of solitary confinement are central to the program.
Prison reform advocates welcomed the scrutiny of a key issue and praised the Department of Corrections for its transparency in opening the Warren facility to “Frontline,” giving what the program called “unrestricted” and unprecedented access to a solitary confinement unit.
“Solitary confinement reform has been a long-term effort in Maine and we are so pleased that Maine has the opportunity to serve as a model of successful reform for the rest of the country,” said Rachel Healy, spokeswoman for American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Last year, the ACLU of Maine issued a report on solitary confinement reform in the state titled “Change is Possible.”
“Frontline” is produced by WGBH-TV in Boston and is recognized for its in-depth documentaries on complex topics.
Solitary confinement historically has been used as punishment – a way to deter inmates from bad behavior and remove them from the general population if they pose a threat to themselves or others. After the new Maine State Prison was built in 2002, one out of every nine prisoners there was in solitary until reforms in recent years reduced that number from more than 100 to between 40 and 50, as is typical now. In addition, it would often take three to six months to get out even for minor infractions, said Steve Lewicki, coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. Lewicki met with the “Frontline” program’s field producer before the program was filmed.
Supporters of reform argue that practices such as solitary confinement are counterproductive because they have a detrimental effect on inmates’ mental health and no benefits for inmate management or rehabilitation. Some have argued that denying a person human companionship for long periods is so harmful it qualifies as torture.
One problem with placing prisoners in solitary confinement for extended periods is that it does not rehabilitate inmates, the overwhelming majority of whom will be released into society one day, advocates for reform say.
“We don’t need these (large) numbers of inmates in these high-security settings, and we can better prepare them for release” with alternatives, Ponte said in a podcast recorded by the ACLU of Maine. Ponte left last month to run New York City’s jail system.
In Maine, the transfer to solitary for punishment now has to be approved by the warden, rather than a supervisor, a change adopted under Ponte. Keeping an inmate there for more than three days must be approved by the corrections commissioner.
The prison also is required to look at what prompted the inmate’s disruptive behavior and what can be done to change it. If a prisoner has a mental illness, that must be considered before assigning him to solitary.
The union representing corrections officers has said the shift may have gone too far – that inmates no longer fear the punishment of solitary, are unafraid of alternative sanctions and so are more prone to act out.
The Maine State Prison still uses solitary confinement – or segregation, as it is called – especially when someone is a danger to himself or others.
The “Frontline” trailer shows inmates slamming fists into the wall and others who have injured themselves being led bloody from their cells.
“You can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal,” an inmate says in the program’s trailer.
Maine’s use of solitary confinement has garnered attention in the past. A 2009 New Yorker article that shed light on the extent and impact of solitary confinement in the United States noted that there were more people in solitary in Maine at the time than in all of England, which had reformed its use of solitary.
In 2010, a coalition of groups including the ACLU of Maine, the Maine Council of Churches, the NAACP and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to prohibit long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness.
The legislation helped focus attention on the issue, said Lewicki, of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. He said the group has been pleased with the changes in solitary confinement and in the openness with which the department was run under Ponte, including granting access to “Frontline.”
The group worries that the old methods could return but said it is optimistic that the acting commissioner, Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick – who has worked for years in the therapeutic aspects of Maine corrections – will continue those practices.
“Solitary Nation” airs April 22. A related program, “Prison State,” looks at recidivism and the cost of corrections, drawing from experiences in other parts of the country. It will air on April 29.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: