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The Change in Maine: The Pine Tree State Leads the Way on Solitary Confinement Reform

Rachel Healy,
Director of Public Education and Communications,
ACLU of Maine
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March 11, 2013

The world will get a glimpse this week into how the United States treats those we lock in solitary confinement, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hears ACLU testimonies on how our treatment of vulnerable prisoners violates international human rights norms. The short story: we should be ashamed. For a more detailed picture, check back throughout the week for an ongoing blog series on the issue.

In March 2009, Atul Gawande wrote in the New Yorker that successful solitary reform in England had left fewer prisoners in “extreme isolation” in that entire country than in the state of Maine. Four years later, Maine has reduced the population of its solitary confinement Special Management Unit (SMU) by over 70 percent. While the sting of being singled out may have motivated some, Maine’s reforms were actually the result of a seven-year effort that is documented in a new report out today from the ACLU of Maine, Change Is Possible: A Case Study Of Solitary Confinement Reform In Maine.

We hope this report will serve as a useful case study of what is possible and as a model for achieving significant change across the nation.


Check out the podcast for Joseph Ponte’s thoughts on Solitary Confinement

As the report describes, in addition to reducing the overall SMU population, prisoners who do end up in solitary in Maine spend less time there, are treated like human beings while confined, and are shown a clear path to reentry into the general prison population. All of this has been accomplished without compromising the safety of prison staff or other prisoners, and with significant cost and resource savings. Maine’s successful reforms represent a rebuttal to everyone who declares that solitary reform cannot or should not be done.

In an interview last year, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who presided over the reform, told us why he believes it was the right thing to do.

No one can really say that [reducing the number of people held in solitary confinement in Maine] somehow caused harm… It’s the highest cost bed for most agencies, surely for Maine…So, we ask the question: is it really necessary? And is it necessary at the level of current use? I think when you look critically at it – and we certainly did here – the answer is clearly, ‘We don’t need these kinds of numbers of inmates in these kinds of high-security settings and we can better prepare them for release, because 98% of our inmates are getting out.’

Tomorrow, we will submit the report to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alongside testimony from the National ACLU. As the report documents, the investigation of corrections practices in Maine by credible experts was an important step on the road to reform. Investigations of this nature are not easy to produce, but the IACHR is in a strong position to perform, or at least encourage, such investigations. We are recommending that the IACHR continue to engage with this important topic, and that it consider establishing a mission to observe and report on the use of solitary confinement in the United States.

The movement to reform solitary is growing quickly, and we are hopeful that other states and the federal government will join us in making changes that benefit everyone. Maine’s state motto is Dirigo, “I lead” in Latin. Leadership on solitary confinement reform should serve as an example for the nation.

Other posts in the series:

ACLU: Solitary Violates Human Rights

Sad State in Florida

Solitary in New York

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