Todd Fickett’s blood covered the floor of his narrow cell and soaked into his yellow prison uniform.
He had cut himself badly, not in an effort to commit suicide, but to get a reprieve from the isolation of solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren.
People like Fickett are at the center of an ongoing debate in prisons across the country about the effect of solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health.
“Frontline,” the award-winning PBS documentary series, spent hundreds of hours filming at the Maine State Prison’s isolation unit to help inform that debate, offering an unprecedented look behind the curtain to see how the worst of the worst behave in one of society’s most challenging environments. The program, “Solitary Nation,” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Maine Public Broadcasting.
“It seemed to me there was very little hard evidence for that debate to feed off,” Dan Edge, the program’s director, said in an interview over the weekend. “The public was generally not aware of what it’s like in those isolation units.”
Viewers are given an unsanitized view of how several different prisoners respond to prolonged isolation – flooding their cells, pushing feces beneath the cell door, pounding on the small window that looks in on the cell, and threatening to kill guards and administrators.
The program also looks at Warden Rod Bouffard’s efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement and develop programs to help diminish the amount of time inmates spend in segregation. Otherwise, they will be worse when released from prison than they were when they went in.
Edge said he was first exposed to the issues surrounding solitary confinement while working on a separate program about veterans from the war in Iraq who entered the criminal justice system.
“Frontline” chose to focus on Maine’s use of solitary confinement because it is on the cutting edge of the debate, with an administration that has been working in recent years to reduce its use.
“What we documented in Maine State Prison is an administration grappling with the issue. … A few years ago, you would have found the seriously mentally ill in segregation. They’re no longer there. Now they’re being treated. In that sense Maine’s ahead of the game,” Edge said.
Former Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has worked to reduce the use of long-term solitary confinement and also supported the request of “Frontline” to record hundreds of hours of video inside the isolation unit. Ponte was hired in March to run the vast New York City jail system in large part because of the changes he instituted in Maine.
“What’s happening in Maine has certainly caught the attention of correctional administrators all across the country. Ponte let me into the prison. I think it’s fair to say he can see value in a national conversation like this,” Edge said.
The program focuses on the experiences of a handful of inmates who are sent to solitary confinement as punishment and to keep them from hurting other inmates or corrections officers.
“The majority of inmates held in solitary for more than a few days will deteriorate, will potentially become worse, more dangerous,” Edge said.
Fickett, who is in prison for arson and was in solitary for assaulting a corrections officer, says at one point: “Down here is like being buried alive.”
The challenge, Edge said, is that the prison can’t simply allow violent inmates to mingle with the regular prison population. There has to be a system of consequences to manage inmates’ behavior and the prison needs to support its corrections staff by showing their authority and safety are top priorities, prison administrators say in the “Frontline” report.
There was no indication the cameras influenced how prisoners behaved while doing the filming in October and February, Edge said. There was no change in the number of violent incidents or incidents of self-injurious behavior while the film crews were there, he said.
In one segment, the camera was just left on the hallway floor for hours, and captured a scene of what inmates call “fishing.” Inmates using weights at the end of long pieces of thread pulled from a blanket or clothing are able to skim it from underneath their cell door, across the hallway into another cell, then pull back items the other inmate has secured to the string. Sometimes it’s a newspaper. Sometimes, Edge said, it’s drugs.
Edge said one of the conclusions he took from the project, beyond the complexity of the problem, was how challenging the conditions are for prison staff.
“It’s like being in a war zone really, as I think the film makes clear,” Edge said. “As solitary use in the U.S. becomes a sort of monster, both the people in it and the people who work in it are victims to a degree. Several of the officers are seriously haunted by what they saw there and I will be for some time.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: