Mar 29, 2010

Maine Legislators press colleagues to lead nation in Supermax reform

If legislative supporters of reform of Maine's troubled Supermax have their way, Mainers will soon be spending less time in solitary confinement and other forms of "special management".  

 LD 1611 An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners", has come out from its  review by the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee with  several alternatives. 

 Because the majority report from the Committee merely urges the Department of Corrections to conduct an internal review of its supermax policies, other legislators on the committee are championing a minority report that they hope the greater House and Senate will approve instead.

Called the Nutting/Schatz amendment for its two key sponsors: Senator John Nutting and Representative James Schatz, the Alternative Report#2 would (1) identify types of mental illness that identify certain prisoners to be unsuitable for "segregation", and(2)  limit the use of segregation or solitary to 45 days, with extensions only if the isolated inmate has attempted to escape, has engaged "serious physical violence" including sexual assault, or "would pose a risk to the safety of staff or other prisoners."

 Prisoners would also be able to appeal solitary confinement and, under their own expense, could hire an attorney and produce witnesses for the appeal. The bill also requires the Department of Corrections to maintain a current list of all "special management" prisoners

The Majority Report is a  toothless sop to prison industry lobbyists" said Ron Huber,  prison reform activist and producer of a weekly radio show on Maine state prison issues.  "The prison industry waged a negative campaign attacking the reform bill as dangerous for prison guards and other officials." he said.

 While the alleged dangers were never articulated, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee was convinced into supporting a stripped down version of the bill that limits it to simply urging prison officials to investigate themselves and try to reform Maine's supermax from within. 

 "Doesn't work," Huber said.  "Maine state prison has been urged before to improve its record on treatement of Maine citizens placed under solitary confinement and other forms of "special management". To little effect"

The alternative bill by Senator Nutting and Representative Schatz is watered down, Huber said, but still requires the state to treat Mainers behind prison bars as human beings. "Inmates that are mentally incapable of handling solitary confinement will be disciplined in other ways." 

 With dozens of Maine legislators already supporting the Nutting/Schatz Alternative report (Minority report 2), Huber and other prison reform activists are confident that the legislature will pass the minority report's modest reforms into law. 

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