Everyone – incarcerated people and their advocates, as well as the officials who run our prisons and jails – agrees that solitary confinement is psychologically harmful, and counter to the common goals of increasing safety and reducing recidivism.

What they can’t agree on – illustrated by an ongoing discussion in front of a Maine legislative committee – is just what constitutes solitary confinement.

In the end, however, it is a largely semantic debate that doesn’t get us any closer to what should be the ultimate goal: making sure people incarcerated in Maine aren’t subjected to inhumane, dehumanizing conditions that in the final calculation make things worse inside and out of prison.

A bill now before the Legislature would do just that. L.D. 696, from Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-South Portland, would define solitary confinement as segregation of 20 hours or more in any 24-hour period, and would ban the practice entirely in Maine’s prisons and jails.

Additionally, the bill would limit segregation of 17 hours or more per day, and prohibit it for people under 21, over 65 or those who are pregnant or disabled.

It would also create additional layers of oversight when people are subjected to segregation, and fund a study to look at how often the practices are used and whether there are better strategies available.


The Maine Department of Corrections, which runs state prisons, and Maine sheriffs, who operate the jails, say the people held on their watch are not subjected to excessive isolation.

When incarcerated people are isolated, they say, it is necessary to keep themselves and others safe, and to keep order in the facility.

In testimony, the department pointed out, correctly, that the state has achieved a large reduction in the use of isolation, and that it has put in place educational and social programming to take its place.

There have been improvements, particularly within Maine’s prison system. But the testimony from incarcerated people and their advocates suggests that people are still being harmed through isolation, and that alternatives are not as robust as the state claims.

While state corrections officials say “solitary confinement” does not exist as they define it, there remain in jails and prisons people who end up isolated for long periods of time. To say otherwise would be to ignore the testimony of those who have experienced it and those who care for them.

Whatever you want to call it, that kind of isolation is traumatic, and does more harm than good, causing all sorts of physical and mental distress. By ratcheting up anger, frustration and anguish, it makes incarceration more dangerous, not less. It adds unnecessarily to the punishment and loss of incarceration, and makes it more likely a person will be unsuccessful once released.

Whether it is happening a little or a lot, it is a practice that should be ended.

The bill in question makes clear the difference between isolation that is illegal and that which is merely situational and should be avoided if possible. It also ensures accountability by forcing officials to show isolation is used as sparingly as possible, and that alternatives are used whenever possible.

It will solve all debates over what is, and what isn’t, solitary confinement, and Maine’s criminal justice system will be better for it.

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