One of the most difficult conversations we are having in the legislature these days is about how to reduce “solitary confinement” within our prisons.
The Baker administration’s dramatic improvement of conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital offers a hopeful precedent. The key idea there has been to de-escalate conflict, to calm patients down instead of restraining them when they get agitated.
The challenge is to bring the same fundamental idea into our prisons. Over half of the inmates in our state prison system are there for violent offenses. Some have gang affiliations. The potential for violence is ever present. Most of the violence is inmate-on-inmate.
If an inmate assaults another inmate – or a correctional officer – there has to be a punitive response, if for no other reason than to attenuate the likely cycle of revenge assaults. For men who are already serving time, some already serving life, the only available response is loss of privileges – confinement within a cell losing ability to socialize and participate in prison programming.
While we still have archaic statutes on the books authorizing “isolation” – one meal a day and minimal cell furnishing, other laws and regulations prohibit that kind of severe confinement. Under public health regulations, all prisoners are required to have at least five hours a week of outdoor recreation time. Department of Correction regulations provide that food in segregation should be equivalent to food in the general population.
The preferred term today, to distinguish current practices from older practices that were even less humane, is “restrictive housing“. Yet for some prisoners, especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions, just the cell confinement over 22 hours a day, the sensory deprivation, can be a torturous and destabilizing experience.
Over the past decade, the Department of Correction has made real progress in creating secure treatment units offering daily therapeutic interaction for agitated prisoners with severe mental illness. In 2012, the Disability Law Center reached an agreement to keep people with severe mental illness out of restrictive housing and get them into STUs or other treatment settings. In 2014, the legislature solidified this agreement with statutory language.
But that still leaves a few hundred men confined in restrictive housing. Most of them are not severely mentally ill, but have committed disciplinary breaches. For inmates who have committed serious assaults, confinement can continue for years.
Inmates can spiral downwards in confinement, not necessarily losing their sanity, but coming to believe that they exist at war with the world, continually starting new fights that extend their confinement. If we can show them humane respect and a chance to earn their way out of confinement, some can follow a pathway towards more mature coping with others.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with a team to visit the Maine State Prison, a structure that replaced the infamous Shawshank prison about 15 years ago.
The new prison was built to house prisoners at multiple security levels, including “supermax”, and until quite recently, housed roughly 100 prisoners in restrictive housing.
Some very unhealthy behavior patterns had developed in those restrictive housing units. A Frontline documentary filmed in the units featured a lot of blood from inmates cutting themselves.
The leadership of the Maine State Prison undertook to change those patterns and, in fact, has dramatically reduced the number of men in long-term restrictive housing. Those improvements – like the improvements at Bridgewater State Hospital — have been achieved only through daily management focus on de-escalating conflict.
Ultimately, only the leadership of our prison system can make the necessary changes, but we are working hard to frame legislative measures that will support and encourage those changes.