There appears to be some confusion in the community these days about jails and prisons, the purpose they serve, and the conditions that exist in them. L.D. 1611 has been proposed by some politicians and advocacy groups to “ensure humane treatment for special management prisoners.”

This targets so-called solitary confinement, which is generally thought of as isolation, calling to mind Abu Ghraib prison, Terry Anderson as a hostage, and John McCain as a prisoner of war. It is directed at the Special Management Unit at Maine State Prison, which houses two segregation pods and the Mental Health Unit.

Inside, you hear the expression “it’s a prison,” a reference to its basic function, keeping the bad guys off the street. Inmates should expect it to be regimented, the food to be institutional, the medical care to be good enough, and the guards to run the place and enforce the many rules, and no inmate should expect more than is required by law and policy. This is in contrast to the description that fits many inmates: “I’m entitled, and the rules do not apply to me,” the kind of thinking that tends to get people in jail.

This structure is helpful for many prisoners who come from chaotic childhoods, or have internal chaos derived from genetic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, psychopathy or other mental defect that does not necessarily impair one’s ability to know right from wrong. Prison, one often hears, holds people accountable for the criminal behavior that resulted in incarceration as well as for behavior while in residence.

Offenders should come out of prison better than when they went in, implying some degree of rehabilitation. Studies are demonstrating that problems such as illiteracy, lack of employment skills, addictions, anger, sex offending and criminal thinking can be changed while offenders are in prison — at least in a measurably significant number of them — enough to make it worthwhile.

The United States has more people incarcerated by far, percentage-wise, than any other country in the world. In Maine, our incarceration rate is close to the lower rate of the world’s other modern countries and the lowest in the United States. Even so, we have had to rebuild most of our state’s prison and jail infrastructure over the past decade, primarily because it was falling apart and because Maine’s prison population increases over time as the overall population grows and changes.

Part of being in jail or prison is to be locked down for all or part of the day. “Lock down” means to be confined to one’s room or cell for a period of time and not allowed in the day room or other open area of the jail or prison. This can mean being locked in a dorm with many other residents or by oneself in a single cell. This varies from facility to facility across the state.

At the Maine State Prison, most of the general population prisoners are locked down for about 12 hours a day, including nighttime, counts and codes. This is based on a need for security staff to maintain an acceptable level of control in line with the available guard staff. That number is in direct relationship to cost and budget. Facilities can operate with significantly fewer guard staff when the prisoners are all locked down.

In Maine State Prison segregation (the old supermax), the cells are in two pods, most down corridors facing each other. The cell windows are larger than in the newer prison, and all the prisoners can see and talk to a number of other prisoners, making the place quite noisy and boisterous at times. The guards have to log 15-minute checks in the area housing the highest-risk prisoners (30 minutes elsewhere), and the first few cells are watch cells monitored by cameras in local control.

On the highest-security side, prisoners do not have physical contact with each other and are handcuffed when out of their cells; they get one hour of daily recreation in separated enclosures in a large recreation yard. On the less restrictive side, prisoners recreate in an open recreation yard. Prisoners in segregation are on a prescribed schedule for showers, recreation, phone calls and visits — all out of cell — and come out for various meetings, such as mental health (there are two full-time professionals assigned there), status reviews or boards, and to see medical staff.

Medication and nursing checks (three times a day), meals, cell cleaning, books, educational and chaplain services are all brought to them, requiring more staff than anywhere else in the facility. A number of prisoners are engaged in various maintenance and program activities, at times spending most of the day out of their cells. Prisoners are allowed some personal privileges, including mail, but are not allowed electronics or canteen privileges like in general population.

The Mental Health Unit is a small wing added onto the old supermax building when the new prison was built in 2001. It has an open side with full general population privileges, including TVs, and a secure side, which generally has the same privileges as the segregation side. The Mental Health Unit treatment team decides case by case what prisoners are allowed based on safety and their mental health needs.

Several years ago, mental health advocacy groups in the community got the prison to spiff up the Mental Health Unit with the addition of artwork and more comfortable furniture. It is the smallest, safest and most comfortable housing unit at the Maine State Prison. It is often difficult to keep out prisoners who don’t really qualify to be there, or to get mentally-ill prisoners, now stable, back to general population. The Mental Health Unit has the highest staff-to-inmate ratio, including two full-time mental health providers and a care and treatment worker or caseworker.

Except as above, prisoners in segregation or on the secure Mental Health Unit are essentially locked down 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A prisoner’s needs and ability to cope with being locked down can vary widely, ranging from prisoners who feel safest locked down all the time to some mentally-ill inmates who quickly deteriorate.

Staff are fully aware of these issues and quickly learn that the job involves knowing your inmates, which means walking and talking. I am always impressed with how well most of the guards know the men they supervise in their housing units. They typically understand each inmate’s baseline character and can often readily tell when an inmate is not doing well, then pass this on to supervisors, nursing and mental health staff.

The number of jail and prison beds in Maine has increased over the past decade as new facilities come online with greater capacity. When the new prison opened in 2002 after years of bulging at the seams, there was a surplus of cells, allowing for prisoner movement and housing options. It filled up in no time, and the same has now happened with the new jails.

The Maine State Prison now, like in 2000, has no available cells. When there are no available cells, there are few options for moving prisoners around. That is, prisoners may come to segregation or to the Mental Health Unit, but when cleared to go back to general population, they can sit on a list for weeks waiting for an available cell in general population.

While there are certainly changes that could be made in Maine Department of Corrections policies and practice to reduce the negative effects of prisoners’ being locked down for long periods of time, the real issue will be money to pay for staff and programs at a time of major cutbacks.

That and a willingness on the part of politicians and voters to accommodate prisoners re-entering the community at the end of their sentences. It would seem to me far wiser for time and energy to be spent on that, rather than on trying to correct all the legal and technical problems with ill-advised LD 1611.

James M. Thomas lives in Camden and is a licensed clinical social worker on the Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison. His opinions are not representative of the Maine Department of Corrections.