Local legislators were divided on a bill that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The House voted 78-67 on April 6 to accept an amended version of LD 1611, “An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners.” The amended version removed all of the restrictions that had been in the original bill. The Senate also approved the resolve but there was no roll call vote.

The governor must sign the bill for it to become law.

The resolve directs the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections to consult with the mental health and substance abuse focus group of the Board of Corrections to review due process for prisoners and for the placement of special management prisoners.

A report is to be presented to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee by Jan. 15, 2011.

The original version of the bill had been supported by civil liberties groups, which said the placement of prisoners with mental illnesses in solitary confinement was inhumane. Opponents of the bill said the prison needed flexibility in dealing with unruly prisoners.

Rep. Edward Mazurek, D-Rockland, said he was against the original bill and also the resolve. He said the prison is a prison and not a mental hospital. He said the isolation units are used to help protect inmates and staff.

“I think it sends the wrong message to the prison employees,” Mazurek said of the bill. He said the new warden at the Maine State Prison should be given time to come up with her own review and policies.

“We don’t need to have guards feel like we’re looking over their shoulders all the time,” he said.

Rep. Joan Welsh, D-Rockport, said she has been undecided on the legislation but supported the resolve.

“I certainly am concerned about the treatment of our prisoners, but also understand the challenges for corrections personnel,” Welsh said. She said she wanted to give the new warden time to implement policies that may address concerns raised by the study committee.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, said he voted against the bill, both in its original form and as the resolve.

“While I’m very concerned about the shortage of mental health services in our prisons, I don’t believe the Legislature should be telling our professional corrections staff how to do their jobs,” Kruger said.

Supporting the resolve were Democratic Reps. Welsh, House Speaker Hannah Pingree of North Haven, Andrew O’Brien of Lincolnville, Elizabeth Miller of Somerville, Wendy Pieh of Bremen, Veronica Magnan of Stockton Springs, John Piotti of Unity, and Elsie Flemings of Bar Harbor.

Voting to kill the resolve were Reps. Mazurek; Kruger; Wes Richardson, R-Warren; Jonathan McKane, R-Newcastle; Jayne Crosby Giles, R-Belfast; and Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport.

There was no roll call in the Senate; however, there were two roll call votes on earlier versions of the legislation. Republican Sens. Christopher Rector of Thomaston, A. David Trahan of Waldoboro, and Carol Weston of Montville, voted to kill the bill. Hancock County Democratic Sen. Dennis Damon of Trenton voted earlier to keep the bill alive on an indefinite postponement vote.

Rector said this bill was attempting to legislate operational policies and he was against that. Rector said the state needs to put in place management officials who follow best practices and policies and if there are problems, those people should be removed. He noted there is a brand-new warden.

“The resolve was a vote of no confidence in the management and I opposed it,” Rector said.

Patricia Barnhart was hired a few months ago to be the new warden at the Maine State Prison. She replaced Jeffrey Merrill.

The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, sought 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 have been 45 days, unless more infractions were committed by the prisoner.

According to a Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation press release issued earlier this year, 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.

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