YARMOUTH — And God said, “It is not good for a man to be alone.”

Genesis 2 teaches us that human beings are meant to live in community with others. Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures all affirm that human beings have inherent God-given dignity and that we all need each other physically, mentally and spiritually.

It is no coincidence that extended periods of isolation cause severe harm to human beings. Inmates in solitary confinement are often held alone in small cells for up to 23 hours per day. As a result, many experience paranoia, delusions and other long-term mental harm.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a national bipartisan task force established in 2006, noted that among the dozens of studies on the use of solitary confinement conducted since the 1970s, there was not a single study of non-voluntary solitary confinement lasting more than 10 days that did not document negative psychiatric results in its subjects.

In his statement to the commission, Dr. Stuart Grassian, an expert on the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement, highlighted perceptual distortions as a particularly alarming symptom experienced by many isolated prisoners because “loss of perceptual constancy … is very rare, and when found, is far more commonly associated with neurological illness (especially seizure disorders and brain tumors affecting integration areas of the brain) than with primary psychiatric illness.”

In today’s challenging economic time, policymakers face increased scrutiny of public spending. A growing number of states are recognizing that reliance on prolonged solitary confinement is not only ineffective and destructive, it’s expensive. States are rethinking housing prisoners in solitary confinement because it takes more staff than general population and consequently can cost twice or three times as much.

I am thankful that Maine is one such state — and in fact, is well ahead of the curve. Last year, Maine’s Department of Corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, ushered in reforms leading to a 70 percent reduction in Maine’s solitary confinement population. He has justified such changes by explaining that using solitary confinement is less effective at keeping both prisoners and prison personnel safe.

“It was a transition of people still thinking that we needed to go back to using segregation and somehow that was keeping them safer. Over time, the more data we’re pulling is showing that what we’re doing now (greatly decreased use of solitary confinement) is safer than what we were doing before,” Ponte said in a video interview with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Not only have the reforms worked, the changes have led to increased savings. Maine’s success is now a model for states around the country.

Ponte’s reforms may also result in benefits for the greater community for years to come, as inmates are released from Maine prisons. More often than not, prisoners held in segregation return to society as less functional human beings. Studies indicate that upon completion of prisoners’ sentences, directly releasing prisoners from isolation into society increases the risk of recidivism.

For example, a Washington state study found that prisoners released directly from segregation to the community committed crimes within the first few months at a rate twice as great as those released from the general prison population.

The study authors point out that decisions about keeping prisoners in segregation “have historically been made with a view only to consequences within prison walls; (the study) results suggest the need also to consider what happens after men leave.”

So, Mainers owe Commissioner Ponte for lowering the prison budget, and potentially, for lower crime rates, too.

It is tempting to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, but as the Scriptures advise us in Matthew 7:24, “a wise man builds his house upon the rock.” Ponte’s success could all be washed away if a new commissioner decides that being tough on crime is more important than being smart on crime.

It is important to remember that legislation provides a more lasting foundation than Department of Corrections’ policies. I call on Maine legislators to codify Ponte’s key policy changes. Maine’s successful transition to more humane and fiscally responsible behavior management policies should not just be an interesting story, it should be a legacy.

Not only have the reforms worked, the changes have led to increased savings.

The Rev. Richard L. Killmer of Yarmouth is executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

– Special to The Press Herald