As the story goes, when they were renovating the old prison in 1992 (at the time they were also building the supermax), they discovered remains of old cells from the early 1800s when the first Maine State Prison was built after Maine separated from Massachusetts. These were described as brick wells in the ground with screw covers on the top, oubliettes, where prisoners were apparently locked down at night and let up during the day to work in the quarry in the prison yard. I thought this was an interesting place to start in light of current misguided legislative efforts to eliminate so-called solitary confinement in the new Warren prison (LD1611).

I had the experience of working in the old prison when I started in early 1999 as a psychiatric social worker, although I had also volunteered back in 1987. The segregation unit at the old prison was converted to the Mental Health Unit in 1998 when segregation was moved to the supermax. In the old prison, one of the corridors on the segregation unit had three tiny cells with inner barred doors and an anteroom with a solid door making them true solitary confinement cells.

Ironically, both prisoners and staff loved the old prison, which had character, many odd little housing areas where a prisoner could avoid others or be with friends, have his own clothes and lots of personal property, and an entrepreneurial system in Prison Industries where a prisoner could actually make some real money. Back in ’87, they were still doing furloughs out of the old prison. I remember one prisoner describing the old prison to me as “heaven for a prison!” Many of the old Thomaston guard staff took retirements so they would not have to deal with the new prison in Warren.

Guards (as well as inmates) from the old prison tell tales about guards, then all required to be big men, “going in on” an out-of-control inmate (what would now be called a “cell extraction”) without any protective gear, Mace or handcuffs in what would end up being a straight-up fist fight, both guards and inmate swinging and getting their licks in, the inmate finally subdued and dragged up to segregation. They also talk about the guards going around in the evening and giving each segregation inmate a full med cup of Thorazine, and the night shift would be quiet, the inmates shuffling around and drooling if not out cold on their bunks.

When the Maine Correctional Institute (the supermax) opened in ’92, it was state-of-the-art at the time, a “control unit” patterned after the Feds and copied around the country, the place where the most dangerous and violent offenders were to be housed and which would put an end to prison violence. The guards there had distinctive uniforms, and an esprit-de-corps developed. Tactical teams were formed up, and a protocol was established for cell extractions, the guards suiting up in protective gear (like football outfits) and using Chemical Mace to go in to remove inmates who would not cuff up to come out of their cells. It was no longer a fair fist fight; the guards would quickly overcome the inmate, who could then be dragged off to a waiting restraint chair where they could be left for an indeterminate time.

Self-abusive behavior by the inmates and acting out such as “flooding out” (think overflowing toilets), pulling sprinklers, or throwing bodily fluids was rampant, sometimes as many as three to four inmates in restraint chairs at a time when I first started working there. At some point, shortly after the new prison came on line in 2002, prison administration began looking at how segregation could be better managed. All cell extractions, Mace incidents and restraint chair placements were video taped and carefully scrutinized by upper management, the line staff provided feedback on incorrect behavior, held to policies, and efforts were made to clean up. The Maine Department of Corrections decided it wanted national accreditation through the American Correctional Association, and a massive effort went into bringing the new prison and the Special Management Unit (the old supermax, now segregation, with the addition of the new Mental Health Unit pod) up to these standards. Order was restored on the segregation side and the number of cell extractions, Mace and restraint chair placements diminished to almost nothing. It was found that something like 50 percent of all cell extractions resulted in some physical injury, either to guards or inmates. A group of program and security staff went to National Institute of Corrections training in Colorado and toured federal and state prisons there, returning with proven ideas for better management of violent prisoners. New protocols were developed to reduce injuries, and emphasis was placed on deescalation techniques to avoid the use of force. A new restraint chair, now on wheels, was used to transport out-of-control inmates in a more comfortable position than the old stationary chairs, so inmates were not dragged around by teams of guards, and inmates were only held in the chair for brief periods until they regained control of themselves. Injuries went down considerably.

Starting in 2006, more attention began to be paid to reducing the negative effects of being locked down and providing incentives for good behavior for prisoners held in segregation for long periods. In-cell programming and treatment groups were offered to some inmates, and many inmates became involved out-of-cell in the massive cleanup and painting effort to get the ACA accreditation. The mental health staff was beefed up, a more substantial program was offered in the MHU, and mentally ill inmates were placed there instead of segregation. There was more effort by all staff to treat prisoners in humane ways, which was incorporated in training for new staff. The Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act came on line, requiring major changes in policies, practices and attitudes. The unattended death last year immediately resulted in a careful examination of prison procedures, and new safeguards, such as timely mental health checks on assault victims, were instituted. Today, our newly appointed SMU manager (the SMU supervisor) has not only a corrections background but is also a mental health professional. She has made it clear that she will do her best to continue to improve conditions for both mentally ill prisoners and the long-term segregation placements. Recently, she reported back on a meeting with the commissioner, saying he was giving her his full backing in this effort.

I say all this to show that the prison has come a long way, and has evolved, sometimes slowly, sometimes with great haste, sometimes due to the pressure of community advocates, sometimes to conform to accreditation and federal standards, and sometimes by changes in the law, but mostly because prison staff and administration want to do the right thing and a good job, both for staff and prisoners as well as the community. This is not something that is readily apparent to the community, or for that matter, to someone on a tour or who works in the prison for a few months. Ultimately, it is the will of the community and their legislative representatives who decide what we do, the bottom line being how much money will be spent for corrections in Maine. Change in corrections is continuous.

That said, LD 1611 appears to be the product of well-intentioned advocates in the community that are not in touch with either the capacity of the Department of Corrections to make changes, or the ongoing efforts already being continuously made by jails and prison staff across the state to make facilities more humane. LD 1611, as it is now written, will essentially put the management of prisoners back to the 1980s when guards were all big men, the prisoners were regularly man-handled, and both staff and prisoners were regularly injured. It is impossible for anyone who really knows what they are talking about to see this as more humane.

If the legislators are truly intent on making corrections more humane, they need to focus on the other end of the process, when prisoners are released back to the community, and answer the question, “Why do they all come back?” Reentry is now the name of the game. Legislators will need to have the courage to insist on halfway houses, rehabilitation centers, and job and training programs situated in the local communities that produced the prisoners. They must do this over the objections of local residents who do not want prisoners, such as sex offenders or drug addicts, living in their communities. If this is addressed properly, the cost of corrections will come down substantially over time, and maybe we won’t have to lock up as many people, a practice that is by its very nature inhuman.

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.