Supporters of the solitary confinement bill soon to be considered by the Maine Legislature (LD 1611 “An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners”) have described the extended isolation of a prisoner as a form of torture. Prisons, meanwhile, must contend with the reality of having to remove prisoners from the general population, particularly in cases where the prisoner is causing harm to prison staff or other prisoners.

The groups that have come out in favor of LD 1611 are diverse. They include civil liberties organizations, medical and religious groups and former inmates. Those in the medical profession increasingly regard excessive use of solitary confinement as harmful to prisoners’ health, both physical and psychological.

Last week, at a film screening hosted by Peace and Justice of Waldo County, several former inmates addressed the practice of solitary confinement, likening it at times to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison or the torture alleged by humanitarian groups to be taking place at Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

Videos of “cell extractions,” as the process is called when prison guards forcibly remove an inmate from a solitary confinement cell, while rarely as gratuitous as the images from Abu Ghraib, certainly depict a similarly desperate corner of the human condition. These videos are abundant on YouTube.

In many cases prisons are required to film the extractions and have a medical staff member present. One of the provisions of LD 1611 would require video documentation in cases where prison officials deem chemical restraint (mace or pepper spray) or physical restraint necessary to remove a prisoner from a cell.

Videos of cell extraction, or any other documentation of solitary confinement, are difficult to watch because they are, in effect, reminders of our failures as a society. The prisoner appears at once irredeemable and also the victim of extreme brutality by those who can do nothing more than “manage” him as he spirals into more extreme states of insanity, anger or desperation. The question that seems unavoidable is, who benefits from this system?

While it’s difficult to argue for policies that potentially expose prison staff to a greater degree of danger in their work, the fundamental premise of the solitary confinement legislation that will soon be considered by the Maine Legislature holds true to an ideal of humane treatment that must apply to all citizens, even violent criminals. Some will argue that it is unreasonable to do right by those who have done, and will continue to do, wrong. We see no other way.