April 5, 2010

House to discuss altered solitary confinement bill

The amended measure would keep mentally ill inmates from being kept in solitary for over a week.

By ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The House will discuss a bill today intended to limit the solitary confinement of seriously mentally ill inmates.

Rep. James Schatz’s original proposal to limit the time any inmate could spend in solitary has changed in scope.

Press Herald file

The original bill has changed in scope.

As proposed by Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, the proposal would have eliminated certain types of restraint and limited to 45 days the time anybody could stay in the most restrictive units of the Maine State Prison in Warren – except in cases where an inmate had committed a serious prison violation.

Schatz plans to introduce an amendment today that would bar inmates with specific mental health diagnoses from the so-called special management units for longer than a week.

"Keeping prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement poses safety and human rights concerns," said Alysia Melnick of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which has worked with Schatz on the bill. "It is known to exacerbate extreme mental illness, cause extreme pain and suffering, and may cause permanent physical and psychological damage."

Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson criticized an earlier version of the bill for defining mental illness too broadly.

Melnick said the new amendment uses a definition of mental illness outlined in a 1995 federal case, Madrid v. Gomez, in which the Ninth District Court found that holding mentally ill inmates in solitary at California's Pelican Bay State Prison violated their constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

Melnick said the bill "enshrines into Maine law the constitutional protections for prisoners with serious mental illness," she said.

Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said it would be costly and difficult to implement the changes.

The list of diagnoses included in the amendment may be more specific than the original bill, she said, but it is not more restrictive.

"More than half of our (prison) population have a mental health diagnosis," Lord said.

Inmates in special management units are separated from the general population for weeks, months or, in some cases, years at a time. Lord said prisoners have access to three books a week and may have weekly visitors and communicate with prisoners in other cells.

The ruling in the California case was specific to a time and place, she said, and didn't apply to what is happening in Maine today.

The state prison has begun to change its policies in the special management unit, Lord said.

Inmates isolated for disciplinary reasons can now return to the general population in half the time with good behavior.

The prison has introduced a behavioral curriculum that encourages inmates to identify and stop criminal thinking patterns.

completing the worksheets, special management unit inmates can earn more privileges, such as more phone calls and access to more books, Lord said.

If the new amendment does not pass in the House, Schatz said he plans to introduce a second amendment to modify a resolve to form a task force that would review the practices of the Department of Corrections.

His amendment would assign this responsibility to the Office of Program Evaluation – not the department itself.

 

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

ewlanford@mainetoday.com

 

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