Around the country and the world there’s a growing movement calling for the end to solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, restrictive housing or lockdown. Here in Maine, the Department of Corrections is leading the effort to curtail its use.
To get to the Special Management Unit at the Maine State Prison you have to walk down a long corridor and pass through half a dozen heavy, locked doors. Here, confinement means virtual isolation for 22-23 hours a day. Phone calls and noncontact visits are limited. Prisoners are handcuffed and shackled whenever they come out of their cells.
“The most dangerous, most difficult inmates are here, and that’s based upon not necessarily on what they did on the outside but what occurred on the inside,” says Warden Randy Liberty.
Liberty says those offenses range from assaults on staff or other inmates to stabbings and even homicide.
Prior to 2015, there were typically 45-50 prisoners housed in the SMU. On a recent visit there were just seven, part of an ongoing effort to reform the use of solitary confinement at the prison.
Liberty says Maine has the fewest number of inmates in restrictive housing in the nation.
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“It was obvious that no good comes of locking people away in a cell for 22 hours a day. And we have to ask ourselves: If the citizens of the state of Maine are paying $44,000 a year to house someone here at the Maine State Prison, when the person’s released they should be treated and programmed for the reasons why they arrived,” he says.
Until recently, one of those prisoners was 36-year-old Jason Potter of Augusta. Prison administrators say he was sent to the SMU after he orchestrated a stabbing.
Potter says he spent 13 months in segregation there.
“When I first went down there it was a lot different than it is now. In the past six months they went from basically like a warehousing. Now, they switched over to this whole new programming and level system where you can earn your transition back,” he says.
Potter says this is a big change in the traditional disciplinary culture of the prison. Earning the transition back to general population is a matter of proving yourself. Complete certain classes and programs, reach the next level. With each level come more privileges.
“Once you get to level 3 you actually start getting more freedom. You still get more freedom in level 2 ‘cause you’re allowed more electronics, stuff like that. But once you’re in level 3 you come out without chains. That’s like the big test,” he says.
Dr. Ryan Thornell is an associate commissioner in the Department of Corrections who’s been tasked with continuing reforms to the use of solitary confinement begun in Maine more than a decade ago. He says the goal of reform isn’t only about reducing the number of inmates who are locked away, it’s also about accountability on the part of the DOC.
“Whether it’s timeliness of reviews, case plan information, programming that we make available to them, how their interactions with staff are going to be, we hold ourselves accountable to make sure those things are actually delivered upon,” he says.
That accountability falls squarely on the shoulders of Anthony Cartlidge, the newly promoted director of operations and programming at the prison.
Some of the inmates who come out of solitary confinement transition to a stepped down facility called the Structured Living Unit, where they are allowed to come out of their cells for several hours a day, eat meals and take classes in small groups. It’s a way to socialize them gradually.
Others are released to the Close Custody Unit.
“Close custody guys are guys that are very violent, very assaultive. That’s a true, close maximum security prisoner. Like Potter? He’s in the Close Unit. He will have the opportunity if his behavior allows to maybe work to the Medium Unit which has less restrictions,” Cartlidge says.
Cartlidge says initially, some of the corrections staff were wary about Potter going back into general population.
“When Potter came out I talked to the staff. I said, ‘Listen, he’s coming out and we want to make sure you know he’s coming out. We want him to reintegrate back into population. We have to take that risk.’ And I’ve had hardly any push-back from staff. They’re beginning to shift, I think, to the risk reduction model,” he says.
What they’ve seen, Cartlidge says, is that disciplinary problems have been reduced under the new model. Data show that since 2015, assaults are down and the number of prisoners being sent back to restrictive housing has dropped as well.
Prisoner advocates applaud the reforms and the results. But Joe Jackson, a former inmate and spokesman for the Maine Prisoners Advocacy Coalition, says there remains a need for more transparency in the prisoner grievance process, a way of challenging solitary confinement in the first place or a decision to let them out.
“The way the process is working and even though with reforms made to it there’s a lot of rubber stamping of ‘No, this grievance isn’t going anywhere and we’re listening to whatever the staff is telling us,’” he says.
Jackson points to a 70 percent recidivism rate for inmates as evidence of the rehabilitation challenges still facing the Maine State Prison.
Zach Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine agrees that more reforms are needed.
“But it’s important to keep sight of how far we’ve come and also how much of an example Maine State Prison is for the rest of the country. The Maine Department of Corrections has shown that you can reduce the use of solitary confinement and keep the prison safe,” he says.
Thornell says it’s unlikely the need for a Special Management Unit will ever be eliminated. But he says the goal will be to move away from the long-term isolation of inmates — prisoners spending six months or more in restrictive housing.
For more about the Maine Department of Corrections’ reforms around solitary confinement and about a new Frontline documentary exploring the psychological effects on several Maine State Prison inmates, tune in to Maine Calling at 1 p.m. Friday.