The Maine Department of Corrections is an equal-opportunity torturer.
In addition to submitting mentally ill men to psychologically devastating solitary confinement at its “supermax” unit at the maximum-security Maine State Prison in Warren, the state does the same to mentally ill women at the 125-inmate women’s prison within the Maine Correctional Center (MCC) in Windham (and to men in the adjacent medium- and minimum-security men’s units).
Solitary confinement, called torture by a growing number of critics within the state and nationally, is also inflicted upon both women and men in the state’s jails, which the Corrections Department oversees.
The Cumberland County Jail in Portland, for example, keeps a half-dozen or so prisoners in true solitary confinement. They are let out for an hour’s exercise each day. It also has 24 cells from which prisoners are let out for four hours a day, one for exercise and three in a “day room.” The jail has a restraint chair and is buying another (portable) one — another increasingly discredited form of prisoner control.
And at least at one point the Cumberland County Jail even used a restraint bed.
“I was laying on my back for weeks at a time,” says Theresa Wooding, 29, of Brunswick, recalling her experience tied down on the bed in 2007.
Every two hours she was allowed to walk a little or go to the bathroom, but after being released from the bed she didn’t regain proper feeling in her legs for months, she says. With a long history of mental illness including bipolar disorder, Wooding says the restraint-bed experience made her mental condition worse.
Sheriff Mark Dion says Wooding’s case was exceptional: a bed had to be brought into the jail just for her. He tried to get a court order to have her committed to the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, he says, “but the state said they wouldn’t take her because she was too dangerous for Riverview or the prison.” He denies she was in the bed for weeks, saying she was there only for a few days.
Wooding was put in restraints because of her suicidal tendencies, to which she readily admits. She has a particular propensity to cut herself, which she says in part stems from a horrendous history of childhood sexual abuse. She also has a history of drug abuse.
But on the bed she was “not combative,” she says, and kept begging jail officials to “bring me somewhere where somebody can help me” — like Riverview, where she’s currently a patient and receives treatment she finds “the ideal.”
“They try to work with you,” she says. “They calm you down.” A dark-haired, intelligent, well-spoken woman, she sees a psychiatrist and looks forward to writing, art, relaxation, and exercise classes.
Wooding was recently sent to the modern, college-campus-like Riverview from MCC — an uncommon event, for there is a long waiting list for a place in Riverview’s 44-bed forensic unit, which is filled by people committed for crimes like murder for which they were found to be not responsible because of insanity, and by people being evaluated for mental competency before trial. MCC superintendent Scott Burnheimer says he’s able to send someone to Riverview about once a year from his 640-inmate prison. Wooding says she was at MCC serving a five-year sentence for a $4000 theft.
At MCC, Wooding says, she spent dreadful weeks at a time in the solitary-confinement cells — there are five for women, 17 for men — and was allowed exercise outdoors for only half an hour five days a week.
Wooding complains that men in solitary at Windham get an hour for exercise and that the women must exercise in handcuffs. She “got lugged” into solitary for one stay, she says, because of an accusation by a staff member that she had kissed another woman, which she denies. She also complains that when she was on “suicide watch” male guards watched her while she used the toilet in her cell.
She calls solitary “the place I go crazy.” Riverview, by contrast, “is not a place where they’re going to lock you in a room” — which, she says, happens to be her greatest fear because as a child she experienced that traumatically.
Her sister, Jessica Wooding, 33, of Bath, says Theresa “has gotten much worse” whenever in solitary — “She’s hurt herself the worst” in that kind of confinement.
Burnheimer says women in segregation have an hour outdoors, though they are in handcuffs, as are the men. He says that if a male guard is watching a woman prisoner and she needs to use a toilet, he has to call for a woman guard.
Punishment, not treatment
Every observation that Wooding makes about how mentally ill people are treated in prison and jail versus in a place like Riverview has recently been affirmed by the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians and by national experts speaking in favor of LD 1611, a bill the Legislature is considering that would prohibit prison inmates who have “serious mental illness” from being put in solitary, which the bill also would limit to 45 days for all but the most dangerous prisoners.
Corrections admits that more than half the inmates in the Warren supermax are seriously mentally ill, and over 100 inmates had been held in its solitary confinement for longer than 45 days during a recent seven-month period. Seven prisoners had been in the supermax for over a year.
“If the goal of the Corrections system is to ensure public safety, then segregation is a counterproductive failure,” said Janis Petzel, president of the psychiatrists’ group, in a news release. Solitary creates and exacerbates mental illness and cripples social skills, she said. “Prisoners who have experienced segregation and who are released back into the community relapse back into criminal behavior sooner and more aggressively than their general prison population counterparts.”
Petzel described to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee how several states stopped putting severely mentally ill prisoners in their supermaxes. Another benefit with less use of solitary confinement is that violence toward staff and other inmates declines, she and others testified.
At a State House news conference, Petzel and two other Maine physicians pointed to a nearby alternative to supermax-type confinement — across the Kennebec River at Riverview. After the news conference, Maine Public Radio’s Susan Sharon interviewed William Nelson, Riverview’s clinical director. He told her that isolation there lasts “in the range of an hour or two.” Physical restraints are used for only minutes. Mental hospitals abandoned harsh control methods years ago under pressure similar to that which is now being brought to bear on prison officials.
When the 13-member Criminal Justice Committee voted on LD 1611, its sponsor, Representative James Schatz, a Blue Hill Democrat, and Senator John Nutting, a Leeds Democrat, supported an amended bill that eliminated proposed restrictions on the use of restraints, a provision prison guards had especially objected to. Four legislators supported a “resolve” urging the department to look into some issues brought up by the bill; its language had not been worked out by press time. Seven members, heeding the protests of Corrections, voted “ought not to pass.”
Several of this latter group were ex-police officers and never deviated from supporting the department and tough treatment of all prisoners — and rejecting the use of the word “torture” to describe solitary confinement. In the public debate the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, doctors, and others have repeatedly called solitary confinement torture, reflecting the increasing medical and legal consensus.
The bill and resolve will soon go to the House and Senate floors. Several leaders of the Democratic majority are bill cosponsors, but the committee’s three-way split makes the outcome hard to predict, and Democratic Governor John Baldacci is opposed.
By LANCE TAPLEY | March 10, 2010
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