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"The mission of the Maine State Prison is to provide a safe, secure, and humane correctional environment for the incarcerated offender."
— prison Web page
Five hollering guards wearing helmets, face shields, and full body armor charge into a mentally ill man’s cell. The first attacker smashes a big shield into him, knocking him down. The attackers jump on him, spray Mace into his face, push him onto his bed, and twist his arms to his back so they can handcuff him. They connect the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. Then they take him into the corridor, cut off all his clothes, and carry him naked and screaming through the cellblock, continuing to Mace him. They put him in an observation room where they bind him to a restraint chair with straps. He remains there naked and cold for hours, yelling and mumbling.
To many people, this scene would look like torture. A scene like it might have taken place in the infamous Abu Graib prison near Baghdad, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described to me independently by six prisoners, including some who have suffered this attack, it is business as usual — an "extraction" for disobedience — in the Special Management Unit, also known as the SMU or the "Supermax," a 100-cell, maximum-security, solitary-confinement facility inside the new 1100-inmate Maine State Prison in Warren. The Supermax’s regulations say it is a place for prisoners who are threats to others, are escape risks, are found with contraband, or who simply don’t obey the rules.
For me to verify the prisoners’ stories, a source who wished not to be identified — to preserve his relationship with the prison — gave the Phoenix a videotape of a cell extraction of a young man. He was not one of the men I interviewed. The prison tapes each extraction in order to prove, some people would say ironically, that the prisoner is not mistreated. The videotape I obtained, although dated to 2000, corroborates the stories I heard. In the end, the man is fully naked in the restraint chair, with no trace of human dignity. My source tells me sometimes there are women guards present. According to the prisoners I interviewed, it gets a lot worse than what the video depicts.
After collecting this and other information that suggest the Supermax fits some classic definitions of torture, I went to interview Maine’s corrections commissioner, Martin Magnusson, in his Augusta office beside the beautiful, smooth Kennebec River. He is, at 57, a plain-speaking, heavy-set, balding man and the former warden of the prison.
As I begin reading the notes that became the first paragraph of this story, he interrupts me halfway through, his demeanor gloomy.
He wants to "de-escalate use of the restraint chair," he says, and he is developing a plan to do it. Although he believes there are legitimate reasons for extractions, and he says more than 200 have already been done this year, he has tried to tighten up the rules on them, he claims. And he has reduced use of the chair from 1300 in 2003 to a rate that will see 900 uses by the end of this year, he says. I haven’t been able to discern an exact number, but other states do use the restraint chair and the method of extraction.
While woman guards may be present when such discipline occurs, he says he ordered over a year ago that prisoners be clothed while in the chair, whenever practicable. He also claims that now "in no way is the chair being used for punishment," although the Supermax prisoners dispute this. Rather, he says, it is used when someone is a threat to others or himself. He adds: "That was always the way it was supposed to be," but he admits that in the past each case "wasn’t being reviewed."
He also announces what appears to be a major turnaround: He wants to reform the way many things are done at the Supermax. "We need to look at the system and see how we can do better," he says, suggesting that carrots (rewards) might be emphasized over sticks (punishment).
The treatment of prisoners at the Supermax has long been controversial. Prisoners, defense attorneys, and the few prison watchdog organizations tend to portray the extractions — and the entire supermax system, which in the past 20 years has become widespread across the country — as part of a cruel, unnecessary, counterproductive, and expensive-to-the-taxpayer cycle of violence that has roughly shoved aside all pretence of "corrections."
They depict the worst part of this cycle in this way:
• First, a mentally ill or unstable prisoner is brought to the Supermax, often for a nonviolent violation like having contraband such as forbidden tools or illegal drugs (by numerous reports, heroin is prevalent in the prison).
• Next, the prisoner acts up under the pressure of weeks or months of confinement to his cell and under the stress of living with more-disturbed prisoners in his cellblock, some of whom throw their urine, feces, and blood at the guards, who become frightened and incensed.
• If he commits a violation of Supermax discipline, as punishment the guards extract the prisoner from his cell and put him in a restraint chair.
• After one or more of these harsh episodes, the prisoner becomes more mentally ill. He may become one of those who throw filth at the guards, creating an extremely hazardous situation for them, himself, and other prisoners. Each prisoner I interviewed complained vigorously that the SMU was not properly cleaned — in fact, that it reeked of excrement, urine, and blood.
• Once again, the prisoner is extracted and put in a restraint chair — possibly, many times more. This treatment drives him crazier. He likely will be prosecuted for assault on the guards and sentenced to five more years in prison, much of which time he may spend in the SMU.
• Finally, the prisoner shows all the symptoms of being totally insane, in despair, and suicidal — and suicidal threats lead to more extractions.
Magnusson, the corrections commissioner, says "there’s some truth" to this cycle, though he feels "it doesn’t happen that much."
The truth is hard to verify precisely. Many prisoners have made their way in the world through deception. Two defense attorneys who are horrified by the Supermax nevertheless warned me against accepting everything I heard from prisoners at face value. But the prisoners’ stories and those collected by prison critics hang together well.
And the prisoners seem more forthcoming than their keepers. The prison was at first uncooperative with my efforts to interview inmates and continued to be uncooperative with my wish to interview prison personnel. I never was allowed to interview the warden, Jeffrey Merrill, who has been sick — but neither was I allowed to interview his deputies. The Supermax was off limits to me. It appears to be off limits to almost all independent observers.
After the intervention of the governor’s office, however, I finally was allowed to see the six prisoners. I was separated from them by thick glass, and we spoke through tinny speakers. They were in handcuffs, leg irons, and orange prison jumpsuits.
And I finally obtained a lengthy interview with Commissioner Magnusson. Surprisingly, he did not want to defend the Supermax as much as he wanted to convince me he was going to reform it.
Both he and prison critics have similar explanations of why these big, high-tech institutions were built across the country, with their restraint chairs, in the 1980s and 1990s. As America’s incarceration rate, which became the highest in the world, went through the roof of the old state prisons, the population explosion threw the old and new prisons into turmoil; and supermaxes segregated the most troublesome inmates. According to some prison critics, supermaxes also were part of the mushrooming, profitable prison industry and something of a cruel fad.
Maine’s Supermax, originally a freestanding facility, opened in 1992. In 2001, the new state prison, which replaced Thomaston’s 1824 landmark, was built around it. Literally and metaphorically, it is at the core of the new prison system.
Prison critics say that supermaxes and the rest of our country’s prison policies are failures, as irrefutably demonstrated by the high recidivism rate among prisoners — their return to crime — and by the continuing tumult roiling the many new prisons, including Maine’s.
"They beat the shit out of you," says SMU prisoner Michael James, speaking hunched against the thick glass. He is talking about the extractions he’s endured. "They push you, knee you, poke you." The guards’ full roughness doesn’t get captured on the videos, he says, because the camera gazes at the guards’ backs.
"They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you are cuffed," James says, showing a scar on his chin — "They split it wide open."
"They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you are not even moving," he says, although he admits he resists sometimes. He says he’s been Maced countless times and has spent long periods in the restraint chair.
"There’s a lot who shouldn’t work here because they get a kick out of controlling people," he adds.
Then he says, his eyes brightening: "There’s some [guards] that are absolutely awesome."
You know, instantly, something is wrong when you meet an otherwise handsome Michael James, 22. He has a small top of the head and a very prominent brow ridge over deep-set eyes. You notice the scars on his shaved head — including, when he bends over, a deep, horizontal gash on the top. He got this, he says, by scraping his head over and over on the metal slot in his cell door used for passing in food trays.
"They were messing with me," he explains. "I couldn’t stand it no more."
He is referring to the guards, who he says taunt him.
"I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the [cell] wall" in frustration, he says.
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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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