Four months ago, a Phoenix investigative series revealed abuses of inmates at the “Supermax,” a 100-bed, solitary-confinement, maximum-security facility inside the Maine State Prison in Warren. The most dramatic abuses, according to critics who include prisoner advocates, occur when guards brutally “extract” disobedient, often mentally ill prisoners from their cells to force them into restraint chairs, where they may be tied down for hours. The Phoenix posted on its Web site excerpts from a prison videotape that recorded an extraction.
Since our articles were published, several important developments related to the Supermax have taken place:
__ In December, the prison released Deane Brown into the general inmate population. He was one of six Supermax prisoners interviewed for the November articles. But he is continuing a “medicine strike” — refusing take drugs for his diabetes and other health problems — until Supermax conditions are improved. He says he is willing to die to bring attention to its abusive environment.
__ In February, the Maine Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the state to force improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners in the Supermax (officially, the Special Management Unit or SMU).
__ State Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson recently told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that he soon would take specific steps to reform the SMU. When interviewed last fall, Magnusson had promised sweeping reforms.
__ The midcoast district attorney charged a former prison guard with assault on a prisoner being extracted from his Supermax cell. This was the first time in at least 25 years that a Maine State Prison guard was charged with using illegal force.
__ Public reaction to our two articles, while generally positive, included protests that our presentation neglected the prison guards’ viewpoint as well as pleas from prisoners and their advocates for us to look into other cases of injustice involving inmates.
Deane Brown’s protest
Although free from solitary confinement for three months, Deane Brown looks thinner and paler than when interviewed in October. His voice is weaker, he is less animated, and his loose teeth look worse.
Intelligent and articulate, Brown is in his early 40s. After an abusive childhood in Rockland and decades of treatment for mental problems, his activities in the mid-1990s resulted in a 59-year sentence for burglaries.
His doctor believes he will die if he continues to refuse to take his medication, he says. During a recent prison interview, he is asked if he is willing to die. Yes, “if there’s no change,” he responds. “I’m not going to be here with the treatment of people the way it is” in the Supermax.
He says he has not taken his medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and asthma since last spring, when he was put in the Supermax for possessing banned tools that prison authorities said could be used in an escape attempt, but which he said were for fixing prisoners’ radios. His doctor could not be reached for comment.
Associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord says, “We have a responsibility to provide appropriate physical and mental care, but prisoners have the right to refuse care. Ultimately, it’s their decision.”
Sometimes Brown’s words of complaint are broad: “That whole unit needs to be swept right out.” Among his concerns is the arbitrariness of incarceration in the Supermax, which is supposed to confine escape risks, prisoners who are threats to themselves or others, and those who break rules by, for example, possessing contraband. Brown says a mere allegation by one prisoner can land another in the Supermax. Prison officials deny this.
Corrections Commissioner Magnusson, for his part, puts in a word of caution about Brown: “He hasn’t shared everything with you about his behavior,” but says the state law barring disclosure of information on specific prisoners prevents him from giving more details.
Sometimes Brown’s demands are specific — and personal. He wants his prison job back. He wants authorities to return his stereo, confiscated when he was put in the Supermax.
But some of Brown’s complaints reflect on general conditions in the Supermax, which are more severe and restrictive than in the rest of the prison. The Supermax doesn’t distinguish between prisoners who are mentally ill and those who are disciplinary cases: One set of rules governs both.