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Reform comes to the supermax

New commissioner cuts population by more than half; prisoner-rights advocates help in the reform
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  May 25, 2011

Joe Jackson, the vice-president of the prison’s NAACP inmate chapter.

Less than three months into his job, Maine's new corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has begun to dramatically reform the Maine State Prison's long-troubled solitary-confinement "supermax" unit.

He has cut its population by more than half.

He has stopped — so far, after several weeks under his new rules — its brutal "cell extractions" by guards of uncooperative inmates. Extractions normally end with inmates strapped into a restraint chair. There were 54 extractions in 2010 and 74 in 2009, the Department of Corrections says, and before publicity about them in recent years the annual number was in the hundreds. (See "Torture in Maine's Prison," by Lance Tapley, November 11, 2005.)

Ponte also has ordered that an inmate can't be placed in the supermax for longer than 72 hours without his personal approval.

His approach to the supermax, while provoking grumbling from some staff at the Warren prison, is applauded by prisoner-rights activists. To press on with reforms, Ponte has created a department-wide committee to which he has added representation from activists. The committee is being guided by the recommendations of a remarkably bold report commissioned last year by the Legislature at the behest of activists.

"I'm holding all of their feet to the fire," Ponte says of prison staff. But he believes that with time and training those who oppose what he's doing will accept the new direction.

Ponte has made supermax problems a top department priority. Besides guard violence in handling inmates, the 132-cell facility, officially the Special Management Unit or SMU, has been beset by suspicious inmate deaths, suicide attempts, inmates cutting themselves, hunger strikes, and assaults on guards — especially, deranged or incensed prisoners throwing their feces, urine, or blood at them.

Ponte's solutions include challenging a one-size-fits-all correctional-officer attitude quick to punish prisoners with solitary confinement for the slightest infraction — and then to let them languish in isolation for weeks, months, or even years. Because of this attitude, the supermax was largely full for years. But as of May 19 it was down to 60 inmates.

As alternatives to solitary when prisoners do things they shouldn't, he has asked guards to use what he calls "informal sanctions," like taking away commissary or recreation privileges. And he stopped the practice of keeping people in the supermax beyond the term of their punishment because there wasn't a bed available in a particular housing unit. The prison actually has plenty of unoccupied cells. After a reorganization of prison and jail housing during the past few years, it has an empty 60-bed unit.

Sometimes inmates being investigated for in-prison crimes stayed in the supermax for months as investigations dragged on. Ponte has imposed a seven-day limit on such stays.

A quiet, unpretentious, 64-year-old Massachusetts native (see "At a Turning Point," by Lance Tapley, February 11), the new commissioner has taken care not to force his reforms in a dictatorial way. To transform the supermax — and the smaller, 22-cell version of it at the medium-security Maine Correctional Center in Windham — he created a 19-person committee composed of top corrections officials and three public members, Rachel Talbot Ross of the NAACP, Jim Bergin of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), and Jon Wilson, chairman of the state prison's board of visitors. The committee meets weekly.

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Related: Penal future, At a turning point, Lock-up lessons, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Maine, Joe Jackson, Prison,  More more >
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