March 4, 2010

Prison bill hearing pits 'solitary' and 'isolation'

Psychiatrists say solitary confinement is torture, but an official says careful isolation is necessary.

AUGUSTA – Psychiatrists who testified in support of a bill to reform treatment of prisoners told lawmakers Wednesday that solitary confinement amounts to torture and can exacerbate or even create mental illness.

At the same hearing, Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson defended the treatment of inmates in Maine's prisons and said he took offense at the use of the wording ''solitary confinement.''

Magnusson told the Criminal Justice Committee that each prisoner who is separated from the general population requires and receives individual treatment and security.

The bill, L.D. 1611, would limit a prisoner's segregation from the general population to 45 days except in some cases, and prohibit solitary confinement of prisoners with severe mental illness.

''This bill would seriously jeopardize the health and safety of both staff and inmates, and require substantial additional costs to the department and the state during a budgetary crisis,'' Magnusson said.

He said inmates in ''special management units'' cannot be put in isolation without a hearing and an appeals process.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, said he doubts that some treatment of prisoners in the state system is ''humane.''

''Solitary confinement is by now well established to be toxic to mental function,'' said Dr. Stuart Grassian, an expert on the effects of solitary confinement who said he has lectured at Harvard University and has been a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the Florida Department of Corrections. ''The mind starts fixating on things, and goes into a fog.''

He told the committee that solitary confinement has been known to be harmful since the 19th century, and that after the Korean War, American prisoners of war who had been held in isolation were diagnosed with mental problems.

Magnusson said that the bill's definition of ''serious mental illness'' would apply to the majority of inmates in isolation and that the Department of Corrections would have to come up with $11 million to treat so many diagnosed patients.

Magnusson said Maine correctional facilities are certified by the American Corrections Association, which gave especially high marks to mental health care in the system.

Isolating some inmates, he said, is important to protecting the inmates themselves.

Most ''can be given support and skills that will allow them to go back to (the) general population and ultimately be released from our system, but a small number are extremely dangerous individuals,'' Magnusson said.

He said more than 90 percent of prisoners who are kept in segregation leave within 45 days, although he knows of at least one prisoner who has been isolated for more than two years.

Dr. Janis Petzel, president of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians and an expert on post-traumatic stress syndrome, spoke in support of the bill.

''If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,'' she said, suggesting that prison guards may have to overuse solitary confinement. ''The practice is, by international definitions, a form of torture.''

The committee will hold a work session on the bill Feb. 26.

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Ethan Wilensky-Lanford can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: ewlanford@mainetoday.com

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