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Seeking humane treatment

State and national efforts well under way
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  February 17, 2010
READ: Lance Tapley's "Screams from solitary"
The Portland Phoenix's prison series

Some Maine people are taking moral responsibility for the way supermax inmates are treated. A bill before the Legislature, LD 1611, “An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners,” would limit solitar confinement to 45 days except in special circumstances; ban the prison from putting seriously mentally ill inmates in the supermax; forbid corporeal punishment and devices such as the restraint chair; prohibit the denial of “food, medical or sanitary facilities, mail or legal assistance” for disciplinary reasons; and set up a review and appeal process for supermax placement.

(The Special Management Unit is the supermax’s official name. For 10 years it was a separate prison in Warren until the new state prison was opened next to it in 2002. It has two “pods” or cellblocks of 50 cells and a psychiatric-patient pod of 32 cells. Typically, it is 80 percent filled.)

The Maine Civil Liberties Union is leading the campaign for the bill. Seventeen organizations support it including the Maine Psychological Association (in 2007 the American Psychological Association declared solitary confinement to be torture), the Maine Council of Churches, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, and the Jeremiah Project, an evangelical political group — this last organization an indication there’s some support for the bill among conservatives, though legislative Republicans have not embraced it.

The majority legislative Democrats have. Sponsored by Representative James Schatz, of Blue Hill, who sits on the Criminal Justice Committee, the bill’s cosponsors include House speaker Hannah Pingree, Criminal Justice chairman Stanley Gerzofsky, and assistant Senate majority leader Lisa Marraché. However, Governor Baldacci, a Democrat, opposes it. The bill’s hearing before the Criminal Justice Committee was set for February 17.

The campaign against the supermax and solitary confinement is building, and not just in Maine. An important new supporter of LD 1611 is the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), a Washington-based coalition of 270 religious organizations. Its director, Richard Killmer, who lives in Yarmouth, plans to speak at a February 23 campaign event in the State House. NRCAT helped draw attention to the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. “Nothing less is at stake in the torture-abuse crisis than the soul of our nation,” says NRCAT’s “Statement of Conscience.” If LD 1611 passes, it would be a model for other states.

The Phoenix’s prison series
To access our series on the Maine State Prison and its supermax unit, including stories about Michael Woodbury, Deane Brown, Michael James, Tino Marino, Sheldon Weinstein, and Victor Valdez, go to

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