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Pressure rising

Supermax torture revisited
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

Pressure Rising Four months ago, a Phoenix investigative series revealed abuses of inmates at the “Supermax,” a 100-bed, solitary-confinement, maximum-security facility inside the Maine State Prison in Warren. The most dramatic abuses, according to critics who include prisoner advocates, occur when guards brutally “extract” disobedient, often mentally ill prisoners from their cells to force them into restraint chairs, where they may be tied down for hours. The Phoenix posted on its Web site excerpts from a prison videotape that recorded an extraction.

Since our articles were published, several important developments related to the Supermax have taken place:

__ In December, the prison released Deane Brown into the general inmate population. He was one of six Supermax prisoners interviewed for the November articles. But he is continuing a “medicine strike” — refusing take drugs for his diabetes and other health problems — until Supermax conditions are improved. He says he is willing to die to bring attention to its abusive environment.

__ In February, the Maine Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue the state to force improvement in the treatment of the mentally ill prisoners in the Supermax (officially, the Special Management Unit or SMU).

__ State Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson recently told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that he soon would take specific steps to reform the SMU. When interviewed last fall, Magnusson had promised sweeping reforms.

__ The midcoast district attorney charged a former prison guard with assault on a prisoner being extracted from his Supermax cell. This was the first time in at least 25 years that a Maine State Prison guard was charged with using illegal force.

__ Public reaction to our two articles, while generally positive, included protests that our presentation neglected the prison guards’ viewpoint as well as pleas from prisoners and their advocates for us to look into other cases of injustice involving inmates.

Prisoner Deane Brown continues his "medicine strike," refusing to take drugs for his diabetes and other health problems, until Supermax conditions are improved.Deane Brown’s protest
Although free from solitary confinement for three months, Deane Brown looks thinner and paler than when interviewed in October. His voice is weaker, he is less animated, and his loose teeth look worse.

Intelligent and articulate, Brown is in his early 40s. After an abusive childhood in Rockland and decades of treatment for mental problems, his activities in the mid-1990s resulted in a 59-year sentence for burglaries.

His doctor believes he will die if he continues to refuse to take his medication, he says. During a recent prison interview, he is asked if he is willing to die. Yes, “if there’s no change,” he responds. “I’m not going to be here with the treatment of people the way it is” in the Supermax.

He says he has not taken his medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and asthma since last spring, when he was put in the Supermax for possessing banned tools that prison authorities said could be used in an escape attempt, but which he said were for fixing prisoners’ radios. His doctor could not be reached for comment.

Associate corrections commissioner Denise Lord says, “We have a responsibility to provide appropriate physical and mental care, but prisoners have the right to refuse care. Ultimately, it’s their decision.”

Sometimes Brown’s words of complaint are broad: “That whole unit needs to be swept right out.” Among his concerns is the arbitrariness of incarceration in the Supermax, which is supposed to confine escape risks, prisoners who are threats to themselves or others, and those who break rules by, for example, possessing contraband. Brown says a mere allegation by one prisoner can land another in the Supermax. Prison officials deny this.

Corrections Commissioner Magnusson, for his part, puts in a word of caution about Brown: “He hasn’t shared everything with you about his behavior,” but says the state law barring disclosure of information on specific prisoners prevents him from giving more details.

Sometimes Brown’s demands are specific — and personal. He wants his prison job back. He wants authorities to return his stereo, confiscated when he was put in the Supermax.

But some of Brown’s complaints reflect on general conditions in the Supermax, which are more severe and restrictive than in the rest of the prison. The Supermax doesn’t distinguish between prisoners who are mentally ill and those who are disciplinary cases: One set of rules governs both.

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Related: Prison in turmoil, Prison ‘troublemaker’ confronts racism, medical abuse, Lawmakers to probe prison, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Politics, Health and Fitness, American Correctional Association,  More more >
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    Vacillating between grit and despair — between aggressive lawsuits and suicide attempts — Deane Brown, the prisoner who in 2005 blew the whistle on the torture of mentally ill inmates at the Maine State Prison’s solitary-confinement “Supermax” unit, is struggling against prison conditions in Maryland, where he was exiled by the Baldacci administration.
  •   ANOTHER SUPERMAX HUNGER STRIKE  |  September 02, 2009
    Protesting that nothing had been done by prison authorities to relieve the torture of prolonged solitary confinement, on August 17 inmates of the Maine State Prison’s 100-man Special Management Unit or “Supermax” reprised a hunger strike that had been abandoned last May.
  •   SECRET, UNACCOUNTABLE, AND CO-OPTED  |  August 17, 2009
    The state prison in Warren has been hammered in recent months by an inmate murder and other violence, a prisoner hunger strike, legislative investigations exposing mismanagement and poor guard morale, and a request by human-rights groups for a federal probe of prisoner mistreatment.
  •   MIRACULOUS APPEARANCES  |  August 17, 2009
    Two weeks after the Phoenix began its prison Board of Visitors interviews, which revealed the group had not produced annual reports as required by law and had not met with the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee in years, reports for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 suddenly materialized.
  •   BUDGET CUTS  |  August 05, 2009
    “Things are as tough at the prison right now as I’ve seen them in a long time,” state Corrections commissioner Martin Magnusson told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on July 29. He spoke about the consequences of the staff cuts that the 915-inmate, 410-employee Maine State Prison in Warren has had to endure.

 See all articles by: LANCE TAPLEY

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