The fear of those supporting LD 1611: “An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment of Special Management Unit Prisoners” is that inmates who have served their sentences are released back to the public more damaged than when they entered prison.

At a Statehouse press conference Jan. 21, several speakers representing a coalition of 17 organizations dedicated to limiting solitary confinement in the Maine State Prison said solitary confinement does “damage to the human mind and spirit.”

“Everyone, even those in prison, deserves to be treated like a human being,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “Solitary confinement is torture.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, seeks to limit the amount of time prisoners may be placed in solitary confinement, as well as protect prisoners with mental illness and keep those particular inmates out of solitary confinement.

The limit would be set at 45 days, unless more infractions were committed by the prisoner.

“It is my hope that this bill will result in changing institutional behavior and create a better opportunity for persons released from our prison to be successful citizens,” said Schatz.

According to a Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation press release, medical and psychological research indicates solitary confinement causes physical and psychological harm that can have a lasting and permanent impact on inmates.

The Maine Psychological Association and the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians joined the coalition in endorsing LD 1611.

Sheila Comerford, executive director of the Maine Psychology Association, cited Dr. Craig Hanley, psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and his research on prisoners in solitary confinement.

“His recent study of 100 randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay [State Prison] supermax indicated that prisoners in special management units ‘begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,'” Comerford said.

Hanley’s studies, she said, indicated chronic apathy, lethargy, depression and despair are often results of solitary confinement.

Craig McEwen, a sociology professor at Bowdoin College, said solitary confinement is a reflection on the failure of a prison.

“In a well-functioning correctional system, solitary confinement should be a punishment of last resort, seldom used and applied for short periods of time,” said McEwen. “Overuse can easily lead to a cycle of more misconduct, which will lead to more confinement.”

“Overuse of solitary confinement is inhumane and makes us all less safe,” said Bellows.

Coalition speakers said prisoners can be in and out of solitary confinement for more than a year with little interaction with others. The group did not call for a ban on solitary confinement, but for keeping it reasonable.

“The use and the prolonged use is the difference,” said McEwen.

Bellows said keeping prisoners out of solitary confinement is less costly. She said keeping a prisoner confined is two to three times more expensive than what it costs to house a prisoner in a basic unit.

“If this bill passes, Maine can serve as a model for the rest of the country,” said Bellows.

More information about the coalition’s support of LD 1611 may be found at mclu.org. For more information about the bill, visit mainelegislature.org/LawMakerWeb/summary.asp?ID=280035042.