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Are Maine prisoners being held in solitary confinement? Without a definition, it’s hard to say

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Are Maine prisoners being held in solitary confinement? Without a definition, it’s hard to say

May 03, 2024 | 4:35 am ET
By Evan Popp
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Are Maine prisoners being held in solitary confinement? Without a definition, it’s hard to say
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“We wanted the definition so we could talk about policy, we didn’t want the definition to be the policy," said Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. (DSGPro/Getty Images)

An effort to define solitary confinement in Maine law failed to receive a vote in the Legislature this session amid disagreements about how the term should be understood and amendments that criminal justice reform advocates viewed as unacceptable.  

The Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) has argued that it no longer uses solitary confinement, despite numerous accounts from people behind bars who say they’ve been subject to the practice. 

To create a common understanding of what the term means, Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) in 2023 introduced LD 1086, which would have defined solitary confinement as the isolation of a person in a cell or other place from the general population of a prison or jail for 22 hours or more in a 24-hour period. The bill was then carried over to the 2024 legislative session. 

The proposal came after a 2022 effort to define solitary confinement split lawmakers and failed to advance. 

Maine State Prison residents launch hunger strike over conditions they call solitary confinement

As originally drafted, LD 1086 would have closely corresponded with the United Nations’ definition of solitary confinement — a practice that has been linked to a number of adverse outcomes, including an increased risk of premature death in the first year after release from prison, worsening mental health issues and more frequent instances of violence. 

However, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee split three ways on LD 1086. While five Democrats on the committee supported Lookner’s original proposal, five other members backed another version of the bill that would have deleted references to solitary confinement currently in statute and replaced those references with the term “segregation.” 

The remaining committee members — Rep. Suzanne Salisbury (D-Westbrook), Rep. Tavis Hasenfus (D-Readfield) and Rep. Daniel Newman (R-Belgrade) — supported a third version that would have maintained Lookner’s original definition of solitary confinement but made exceptions for people being confined for medical or mental health reasons. That amendment would have also excluded from the definition the isolation of a resident in a cell for up to five days based on the “reasonable suspicion” that they have ingested a contraband item or inserted such an item in a body cavity.

Salisbury, the House chair of the committee, did not respond to an interview request about her support of that amendment. 

The version supported by Salisbury, Hasenfus and Newman matches an amendment proposed by the DOC in 2023. In testimony last year, DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty said the department doesn’t believe solitary confinement needs to be defined but added that if lawmakers feel otherwise, the amendment the DOC put forward would provide more specific criteria within that definition. 

However, Lookner said the DOC amendment is flawed. 

“It would offer DOC and other correctional facilities in Maine sufficient cover to say that in all instances that isolation is used for 22 hours or more in a 24-hour period, that it’s not solitary confinement,” he argued. 

Still, Lookner said it became clear that the DOC-supported version of the bill was what could ultimately get approval from the Legislature. So rather than moving forward what he and other advocates viewed as a problematic proposal, Lookner said supporters of the original bill pushed to not have a vote at all.  

“Instead of running the bill and ending up with an even worse outcome than what we have today, it was decided that we just leave the law where it’s at today,” which is that solitary confinement isn’t defined, Lookner said.

Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said her primary issue with the DOC’s version was that it would have gone beyond defining solitary confinement. 

“The problem was they were turning a bill that was supposed to be about a definition into a policy bill,” she said. “We wanted the definition so we could talk about policy, we didn’t want the definition to be the policy.” 

Collins said defining what solitary confinement means is important because otherwise it’s difficult to understand when the practice is being used. 

“As long as we don’t have a common language, you can call solitary whatever you want,” she said. “…So the idea was to have a starting point for a conversation.” 

Solitary confinement debate plays out at Maine State Prison

The conversation around solitary confinement has also taken place away from the Legislature, as some residents of a pod in a higher-security section of Maine State Prison launched a hunger strike in late March over conditions they likened to solitary confinement. 

Participants in the strike — which ended several days after starting — said they were only receiving 1-2 hours out of their cell a day without having their placement in those conditions reviewed.

“If you’re locked in a cement cube with nothing and it’s just yourself, you go crazy, man,” Nicholas Gladu, a participant in the hunger strike, told Maine Morning Star.

“It messes you up,” he added.

In a statement shortly after the hunger strike began, DOC spokesperson Samuel Prawer disputed residents’ claims that their conditions are akin to solitary confinement.

However, Prawer did not initially respond to questions about whether or not some residents in Maine State Prison were only getting 1-2 hours out of their cell a day. 

Are Maine prisoners being held in solitary confinement? Without a definition, it’s hard to say
A letter from Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty to Maine State Prison resident Nicholas Gladu, dated April 5, 2024.

But in an official letter obtained by Maine Morning Star, Liberty acknowledged that is sometimes the case. The letter from Liberty is dated April 5 and addressed to Gladu in response to a grievance appeal filed by Gladu.

Liberty wrote that for the eight day period Gladu cited in his grievance, residents in his recreation group received 2.5 hours out of their cell on three days, 2 hours out on two days and 1.5 hours out on three days. Liberty said when the goal of 2.5 hours was not met, it was because of staffing shortages. 

“Every reasonable effort has been, and will continue to be, made to meet this goal,” he wrote. “The housing unit is not a de facto segregation unit, nor is there any intention to make it into one.” 

Still, if the definition used in Lookner’s original bill were adopted, it would mean that Gladu’s recreation group would have been subject to solitary confinement on five days out of the eight referenced in Liberty’s letter.

In an email on Thursday in response to questions about Liberty’s letter and the solitary confinement bill, Prawer said some residents require closer monitoring for reasons related to “serious misconduct,” among other issues. He acknowledged that, as stated in Liberty’s letter, there are instances when the goal of 2.5 hours of out-of-cell time has not been met for such individuals due to staffing shortages. 

However, Prawer reiterated his previous statement that some out-of-cell recreation and social time is provided on a daily basis along with additional time for medical appointments, education, or work programming if needed. He added that visits are allowed and that access to electronic devices is available as long as they aren’t misused. 

“The term ‘solitary confinement’ is inaccurate because it implies an absence of social contact,” Prawer argued. “Even at these levels of custody, out-of-cell time includes opportunities for social gatherings and activities, examples of which include recreation like yoga or basketball, arts and crafts, creative writing, board games, and card games.” 

However, Lookner said if his definition of solitary confinement were adopted, the DOC would have to admit it sometimes uses the practice. 

Going forward, Lookner said he’s uncertain whether he’ll reintroduce a similar bill, saying it could partly depend on the future makeup of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Furthermore, he said his overarching aim goes beyond simply defining the term. 

“I’d like to … limit and prohibit the use of solitary confinement,” he said. “I think that’s the ultimate goal, but first we have to define it. So it remains to be seen.”