We agreed with Rep. Ed Mazurek, D-Rockland, when, after voting against L.D. 1611, “An Act To Ensure Humane Treatment for Special Management Prisoners,” he said the new warden at the Maine State Prison should be given time to come up with her own review and policies. But we don’t find the other reason for his vote very convincing.

Mazurek said the prison is a prison and not a mental hospital, and isolation units help protect inmates and staff.

In reality, our mental health system has devolved to a point where too many of those who need psychological treatment are turning up in the criminal justice system, in which facilities and personnel are ill-equipped to deal with them.

L.D. 1611, which passed narrowly in the House and was approved by the Senate, establishes a distinction between the treatment of prisoners with serious mental illness and those who might otherwise be considered for segregation in what are termed “special management units,” also known as solitary confinement.

While we recognize the difficult environment that a prison presents to those who work there, a great deal of evidence indicates that isolating prisoners from common human contact does more harm than good.

When asked about their votes against L.D. 1611, both Mazurek and Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, mentioned the inadequacy of Maine’s mental health treatment system.

What they and others who oppose clarification of the limits of solitary confinement are not addressing is the evidence of mental illness created by a method that senator and former prisoner of war John McCain said, “… crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

According to a March 30, 2009, article by Harvard Medical School Professor Dr. Atul Gawande in The New Yorker, the impact of isolation is physical, causing electrical activity in the brain to slow and remain abnormal for months after solitary confinement ends. Prisoners hallucinate and lose what little social connection they may have had. For those who don’t have much capacity to endure solitude, such treatment can lead to full-blown mental illness.

Gawande described a transformation in Britain that gave that country’s most dangerous prisoners more control of their day-to-day lives, treatment for mental health issues, more social contact, and even cooking facilities. Ultimately, this has led to fewer prisoners in isolation in Britain than there are in Maine.

A 2006 study by the bipartisan national Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons recommended ending long-term isolation and said that after 10 days, no benefits could be found from the practice.

We welcome Warden Patricia Barnhart and look forward to positive changes at the Maine State Prison. We also encourage our legislators to work to fill the gap in mental health care, not with isolation, but with appropriate treatment.

In the end, most of those at the Maine State Prison will return to our neighborhoods. They will need more human contact, not less, if they are to return to our society as well.