As the Maine Legislature prepares to debate a bill that would limit the scope of solitary confinement in Maine prisons, supporters and opponents of the practice are finding little common ground.

LD 1611, “An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners,” sponsored by Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, would limit the amount of time a prisoner could be kept in solitary confinement to 45 days, unless the prisoner commits or attempts to commit a sexual assault, an escape from confinement or an act of violence within those 45 days.

The bill prohibits the confinement of prisoners with serious mental illness to a “special management unit” (solitary confinement) and requires that a prisoner in an SMU determined to be suffering from serious mental illness be removed within seven days.

Supporters of the bill, including the Maine Civil Liberties Union, medical and religious groups and former prisoners have described solitary confinement as a kind of torture, while the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections have come out strongly opposed to the bill, contending that the law would endanger prison staff by limiting the tools at their disposal for dealing with difficult inmates.

A public hearing on the bill Feb. 17 lasted nine and a half hours, requiring two overflow rooms to accommodate the large number of attendees.

“The people who call solitary confinement ‘torture’ and ‘inhumane’ don’t understand what we do in the prison system,” said Associate Commissioner of Corrections Denise Lord. “The tragedy for us is that the remedy would take scarce resources from the mental health programs [throughout] the prison, not just in the SMU,” she said.

Maine has two SMUs — at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where there are 100 beds in the SMU out of a prison population of 916 — and at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Lord said occupancy of the SMU at Warren averages 85, a figure that includes disciplinary, administrative and high-risk segregation.

Each of the SMU cells at the Maine State Prison has a steel door with a Plexiglas window and a tray slot. Prisoners are allowed one hour each day to exercise, shower and make phone calls. Visits are conducted from behind glass using telephones to communicate.

“First and foremost, it’s about safety,” Lord said. “It’s a tool to protect the staff and also the rest of the prison population.”

Lord said the prisoners in the SMU are segregated but not deprived of stimulation, because they can hear other prisoners and have interactions with guards, counselors and medical staff.

On the evening of Feb. 17, after the public hearing on LD 1611, 50 members of the public, including former prison inmates, activists and a legislator gathered at the Belfast Free Library to hear from supporters of the bill.

The event was hosted by the Peace and Justice Group of Waldo County. Among the speakers was Raymond Luc Levasseur, who spent 13 years of a 20-year prison sentence in solitary confinement. Arrested in 1984, he was sent to the Maine State Prison at Thomaston, since relocated to Warren, for a period of months while he was awaiting trial. Levasseur was eventually sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for his involvement in a series of bombings in the 1980s, carried out to protest U.S. backing of South Africa’s Apartheid regime and America’s covert involvement in Central America. He was paroled in 2004, after serving 20 years.

Both at Thomaston while he was awaiting trial and after his conviction, in three different federal prisons, Levasseur was placed in administrative segregation. The designation meant that he had not done anything that warranted disciplinary segregation and he was not considered a “high risk” prisoner. Levasseur said he found out through a process of appeal that he was in the SMU because of his political associations.

Martin Magnusson, currently the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, was the warden of the Thomaston prison at the time. “He buried me in there,” said Levasseur. “I never saw daylight.”

By his own account he watched his daughters grow from girls to young women through Plexiglas windows, having no physical contact with them for 10 years.

Levasseur used the word “brutality” in describing the treatment of others in the Thomaston SMU, including beatings, forced injections of the antipsychotic Thorazine, and the use of four-point restraints. “This was on [Magnusson’s] watch. The fact that he’s head of DOC and the same kinds of abuse are taking place in the SMU,” he said. “We have to look at why, 25 years later, as he’s moved up the ladder, at why these abuses have continued.”

Advocates of LD 1611 contend that keeping prisoners in cells with limited human contact for 23 hours out of every day is doing them more harm than good.

Levasseur attributed some of the darker scenes he witnessed — prisoners cutting themselves, smearing their feces on the wall — to the dehumanizing environment of the SMU. These circumstances, he and others believe, make it less likely that a former prisoner will succeed on the outside.

“The best thing you can hope for is that they self-destruct,” he said. “And some of them do.”

While Levasseur sees the SMU as the cause of some prisoners’ madness. Lord and the DOC see it differently. “People engage in all forms of disruptive behavior,” Lord said. “The cells are designed to minimize the amount of harm they can do, both to themselves and to the staff. And it’s not just security staff, it’s mental health staff, too.”

According to Lord, the bill also has financial implications. If LD 1611 passes, prisoners would be allowed to have an attorney at their 45-day review. Lord anticipated the reviews would “divert resources into process,” by which she meant expensive legal processes.

“If you want to change behavior, an adversarial process that leads people to defend their position instead of finding a solution at hand doesn’t change behavior,” she said.

Levasseur and other supporters of LD 1611 argue that limiting the use of solitary confinement would not only be humane but it would save the prison system money, based on the cost of keeping a prisoner in the SMU as compared with the cost for a prisoner in the general population.

“We’re not saying that they don’t need some capacity to keep some prisoners in [solitary confinement], but we don’t need a 100-cell segregation unit that’s full all the time,” he said.

LD 1611 is currently before the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. On Feb. 26, the committee is slated to begin work sessions.