A rare look inside the Maine State Prison’s ‘supermax’

From: The Portland Phoenix
Nov 8th 2013
By Lance Tapley

“An almost-clean version of hell”
 
There was a stain of what looked like blood on the floor of the otherwise shiny-clean, empty Mental Health Unit isolation cell. “It’s Kool-Aid,” said my minder, a deputy warden. He smiled. But, as the saying goes, I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.

The cell faintly stank of shit. Mentally ill prisoners and those made mentally ill by prolonged solitary confinement are driven to cut themselves and to try to throw their feces at guards.

In one of the Administrative Segregation cellblocks — pure solitary confinement — I heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.

The Maine State Prison “supermax,” or Special Management Unit, is an ugly place. Are my photos ugly enough? Trying to fit form to content, I used an old film camera and grainy-image-producing 400-speed, black-and-white film shot usually without a flash under fluorescent lights.

There were big limitations. I was not supposed to photograph prisoners, and my tour was rapid. That said, I was, possibly, the first journalist to visit and photograph the supermax — after eight years of writing about it.

Super-harsh supermax (super-maximum-security) prisons and their central feature of solitary confinement became a correctional craze 30 years ago. They became dumping grounds for the mentally ill and others who couldn’t follow prison rules or who simply irritated guards. At least 80,000 human beings are held in them nationwide. Maine opened its supermax in the coastal town of Warren in 1992. Ten years later it built the new state prison around it.

The supermax’s unforgiving conditions are not helpful, to put it mildly, in improving prisoner behavior. The evidence is overwhelming, in fact, that protracted solitary confinement damages or destroys prisoners’ minds. Human-rights groups consider it torture. And it costs taxpayers twice as much as “general population” incarceration.

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