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Reforming the Supermax (Pt. 2)
Obstacles abound for a Corrections Commissioner promising to make changes at Maine’s state prison

The bottom-line test

In the national boom in Supermax construction, "corrections got derailed for a period of time," says a federal official who has been contacted by the state for advice on how to improve conditions at the state prison’s Special Management Unit. The Supermax boom, he suggests, came out of despair: "For a time, there was a thought that nothing worked."

The Supermax also was "the animal of public-policy makers," says George Keiser, head of the prison division of the community corrections unit of the National Institute of Corrections, which is part of the US Department of Justice. The Supermax idea, he adds, is "not one of our brightest lights."

At the Supermax’s origins, too, he says, there was the "mind-set in control settings to strong-arm it."

The alternative, the new direction in corrections, he says, is "evidence-based policy and practice." By this approach, he means a system that lets people out of prison who will have less recidivism—be less prone to commit crimes. But there are other measures of improvement, such as fewer assaults in prison and less risk for guards.

The scientific evidence, he says, points away from punishment and toward treatment, toward changing behavior instead of warehousing prisoners.

For example, in the case of an inmate who is acting up, instead of "exerting force" on him, a prison officer might threaten him, Keiser says, by telling him that he will call his mother: "You might not think it would work, but sometimes it works."

Although this approach to corrections might seem classically liberal — reform oriented — as opposed to classically conservative — oriented to punishment — Keiser denies the liberal-conservative dichotomy.

"From a conservative point of view, we will save money. We will have fewer new crimes. We will have fewer victims."

It meets, he says, the "bottom-line" test.

— Lance Tapley


In part one of this report ["Torture in Maine’s Prison," November 11], based on interviews with six prisoners, I described conditions that could be called torture at the Maine State Prison’s 100-cell Supermax, otherwise known as the Special Management Unit, a maximum security, solitary-confinement facility, in Warren.

In that piece Martin Magnusson, the state’s corrections commissioner, acknowledged that conditions need to be improved at the Supermax. He said he intends to improve them in part by reducing the numerous brutal "extractions" of unruly prisoners from their cells in order to strap them into restraint chairs. A videotape I obtained showed a SWAT-like team in body armor and face shields dragging a naked, screaming, mentally ill prisoner in chains through the cellblock to the chair. The Supermax and the prison as a whole have large numbers of mentally ill prisoners.

Before last week’s story was published, I recounted to several critics of the prison system what Magnusson, the former prison warden, had told me about Supermax reform. They were skeptical.

"Sometimes those in charge promise a fix, but five years later nothing has changed," said Barry Pretzel, a Rockland attorney whose clients have included a number of Supermax prisoners. "They’re either out of office, or they’re hoping no one will call them on an earlier promise."

"It’s hard to imagine reprogramming that physical space," said Craig McEwen, a sociology professor, academic dean at Bowdoin College, and a long-time critic of Maine’s prisons.

I myself became a little skeptical when John Baldacci’s chief aide, Lee Umphrey, sent me an email expressing the governor’s commitment to reform — and he mistakenly left on the bottom of the message his email correspondence with Denise Lord, the associate corrections commissioner. The correspondence suggested that the commitment hadn’t directly come from Baldacci and that my questions were being dealt with perfunctorily.

"Give me two sentences and I will be all set," Umphrey told Lord in the email.

In our conversations, even Magnusson sometimes sounded skeptical of reform. "I don’t know a more humane way to deal with the situation when they’re hurting themselves," he said, describing the use of the restraint chair.

But he pledged to bring a group to Maine next month from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) — "some of the top people in the country . . . to review all our practices."

The NIC is a think-tank on prison issues. It’s a part of the United States Department of Justice and was established after the 1971 Attica Prison riots in New York.

A top NIC official in Washington, DC, George Keiser, confirms that the Maine Department of Corrections had approached his agency for help in reforming the Supermax, but he says it is unlikely the NIC would send people to Maine, at least immediately. "We want to take three or four folks from Maine to the Colorado Department of Corrections," he says, to let them see an "effective" Supermax.

The timing of the department’s vow to reform also inspires skepticism. Both Keiser and Denise Lord of the corrections department say the arrangements with NIC were made only in the first week of November, and I interviewed Magnusson, laying out for him my story of alleged torture at the Supermax, on the Monday of that week.

But Magnusson says his department’s interest in reforming Supermax practices goes back a ways. For a long time "we’ve tried to figure out how to get them to stop throwing feces and cutting up," he says. Recently, he's been encouraged by the success he’s seen at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland.

There, the recidivism rate — the return to crime of released offenders — has plummeted from 50 percent to 10 percent in one year, he says. Magnusson guesses the state prison’s recidivism rate is about 40 percent (he claims not to have hard numbers). The national recidivism rate is 55 to 60 percent, he says, and California’s reaches 75 percent. The Warren inmates have been in prison an average of three to five times, according to Magnusson.

The youth-center reform was accomplished, he believes, through "much improved programming" at the facility. And now "community resources are stronger" for the young inmates. The staff did so much training in how to "de-escalate" use of the restraint chair — verbally calming down individuals instead of throwing them in the chair — that now the chair is "out in a warehouse getting cobwebs on it." At this institution, too, he says, a "progressive reward system" was successfully put in place.

The reforms at the youth center took place after years of intense public criticism. Amnesty International in the late 1990s accused the place of mistreating children. A former inmate claimed, in a 2001 lawsuit, that he suffered excessive solitary confinement and use of the restraint chair; the state settled out of court for $600,000. The youth center’s superintendent was replaced in 2003.

Magnusson says he wants to bring in the NIC to help implement a rewards system at the Supermax and to create stages whereby an inmate can eventually be assimilated back to the general prison population. For example, a prisoner could earn more time outside the cell than the five hours a week now permitted.

The basic intent? "To go from a more punitive approach to more of a treatment approach," Magnusson says.


If Magnusson is sincere in wanting to reform the current system — and he switches in conversation from the Supermax to the entire prison system when he talks about reforms — he faces enormous obstacles.

The 2001 creation of the new Warren prison, which was built around the Supermax, caused big problems, and not much money has been provided by the state Legislature to deal with them.

While waiting to interview Supermax prisoners, I talked casually with several guards. They had little good to say about the new prison.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people here would go back to the old prison in a heartbeat," one tall, middle-aged guard told me, referring to both prisoners and guards. The old prison in Thomaston was "quiet," he said, unlike the new one: "There was a pecking order" among the inmates. A woman guard nodded agreement.

"You’re right," Magnusson responds when told of these complaints. The "much more comfortable" old prison had 430 beds, he says, and the new one quickly filled up to its 1100-prisoner capacity, creating a host of adjustment problems, especially with the addition of hundreds of young prisoners from the Maine Correctional Center, in South Windham, and the overcrowed county jails. And the design of the new prison placed guards tensely "alone in a pod," or cellblock, with prisoners.

Assaults on guards and prisoners shot up, helping fill the Supermax, which is used to hold troublesome prisoners (according to state officials, the Supermax usually is at about 90 percent capacity). And so did the difficulty of recruiting and retaining personnel at the prison, which now has 428 employees. Magnusson noted that, while there are 600 more adult prisoners in the corrections system than there were in 1995, there are 100 fewer staff. Right now he is faced with a mandatory overtime pay problem because, he says, he can’t understaff the prison.

The Legislature and the governor have been stingy in funding corrections (my characterization, not Magnusson’s). The state prison budget has gone up in dollar figures, reflecting the increasing number of inmates from $21 million in 1998 to $32 million in 2004. The total corrections budget is $132 million this year. But Magnusson has been unable to hire more permanent staff for a long time, he says. (According to a printout he provided, it has been about four years.) He says the reforms he will undertake will not involve significant expenses.

Maine has the second-lowest crime rate in the nation, and the rate has been declining, as is happening nationally. Our state also has the lowest incarceration rate. On the flip side, prison populations have been shooting up for years both in Maine and across the nation. Magnusson says he "never saw this coming" — the huge increase in Maine’s prison population and the resulting strains, including overcrowing in just about every facility. The incarceration rate in the state has more than doubled in the past 25 years. For the population increase, Magnusson largely blames mid-1990s changes in the sentencing laws and district attorneys who got plea bargains that sent prisoners to the state prison instead of to the congested county jails.


The obstacles to prison reform are hardly Maine-specific. Most profoundly, they lie in the human psyche on the battleground between revenge and forgiveness, between hope and pessimism. Global opinion condemns the US for capital punishment (though Maine doesn’t have it), the nation’s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate, and its supermaxes.

Many criminologists say the supermaxes and the prison system as a whole are demonstrably counterproductive, if one assumes the goal is to return prisoners who won’t commit crimes again to society. The high recidivism rate proves this, they say; the exiting convicts are not being "corrected" or reformed.

Arguably, the prison system is a success on another level, suggests sociologist and Bowdoin dean McEwen: the crime-rate may be going down in the US because 2.3 million of the most likely crime-doers are locked up — the number continues to climb each year — and the supermaxes "work" in a sense because they remove disruptive people from the general prison population.

But most citizens would prefer that the 90 percent of inmates coming out of prison don’t continue their criminal activity. And "there’s a strong line of evidence and argument that punitive responses are not likely to be effective as deterrents" to the bad actions of prisoners or released prisoners, McEwean says.


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Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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