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Two current legal actions involving the prison allege medical neglect. On May 13 the family of a sick inmate, Victor Valdez, who died in 2009 under disputed circumstances after being hauled to the supermax, notified the state it intends to file a $1-million-plus wrongful-death lawsuit against prison officials and employees of a national company, Correctional Medical Services (CMS), which provides nearly all health care in state correctional facilities. (See "A Prison Obituary," by Lance Tapley, July 30, 2010.) The same lawyer who filed that case, Scott Gardner, of Biddeford, is pressing a similar suit on behalf of the widow of Sheldon Weinstein, who died in 2009 in the supermax. (See "Suspect Speaks," by Lance Tapley, November 6, 2009.)

But Ponte is looking into the medical-care issue. He "quickly followed up on the initial complaints" about medical mistreatment that MPAC has relayed to him, says Judy Garvey. And the commissioner says he will put out to bid the contract for prison medical services, which he says hasn't been put out to bid for years. CMS is getting $13 million from Maine taxpayers in the current fiscal year. (The state also is paying $2.6 million for prisoner medication.)

Garvey and other activists think the ultimate solution for supermax problems is to close down much of the rest of it. Then its former inmates would have, for example, "room to exercise," she says (most supermax exercise is done in individual dog runs outdoors). They would be able to participate in educational programs. They wouldn't suffer the terrible mental and physical effects of isolation. In other words, they would be treated more like human beings.

In any case, Ponte is moving in that direction.

The report: a stunning turnaround

The reforms taking place haven't all been because of Commissioner Ponte.

After consulting with people concerned with prisoner welfare, an interagency group of state and county officials — most with a background in corrections — wrote a 22-page, single-spaced report last year on improvements needed in the solitary-confinement Special Management Unit (SMU) or "supermax" of the Maine State Prison and in the Maine Correctional Center's similar, smaller unit. Requested by the Legislature, the report represents a stunning turnaround in official thinking about solitary confinement and the use of the SMUs.

With the bureaucratic title, "Final Report of Review of Due Process Procedures in Special Management Units at the Maine State Prison and the Maine Correctional Center," the report doesn't oppose solitary confinement per se, but it makes pull-no-punches recommendations to dramatically reduce the use of solitary and make the supermaxes more humane.

Its principal author was psychologist Steven Sherrets, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services as its liaison with Corrections on mental-health issues. He also serves on Ponte's committee implementing the report.

The report's recommendations constitute the template being using to transform the SMUs. It confirms much of what inmates and activists have been complaining about for years (and that the Phoenix has been reporting).

"This is one of the best reports I've received during all my time in the Legislature," says veteran Democratic Representative Anne Haskell, of Portland, who sits on the Criminal Justice Committee.

Here are some recommendations:

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