"Conditions have been consistently filthy for the last eight years since Iíve been here," says Michael Chasse, a very tall, well-spoken, 30-year-old man with slicked-down black hair.
He describes an SMU inmate who constantly tried to cut himself because "he was so frustrated with the ways officers treated him. Thereís a lot of self-destructive behavior in here. A lot of these people are suicidal."
(In fact, despite supposedly overwhelming security, within the past six years one inmate has killed himself in the Supermax and another in the adjacent 36-bed psychiatric unit ó only half of which is used because of insufficient staff, prison authorities say.)
On Michael James, he comments: "That kid has gone nuts since he was put in here. Iíve seen him get beat up. Iíve seen two cops jamming his hands in a tray slot." ("Cops" is a term some prisoners use for their guards.)
He tells of the psychological effects of being locked into his cell for 23 hours a day: "There is a noise that comes from the air vents. The sounds start to seem like voices. I have built imaginary relationships with those white noises."
He admits he threw feces and urine at two officers. He says it was done in return for their exposing him to feces and urine in his cell: "My dignity was stripped."
Although he says most of the people in the Supermax should not be there, he doesnít make that claim for himself: "Iím one of the bad apples."
Indeed, he seems proud of the notoriety of his crimes. He was involved in a bungled robbery, in which he was shot, at the Bangor home of the brother of former Senator and Defense Secretary William Cohen. During the trial for that crime, he escaped from his jailers, stabbing a couple of officers in the process, in an episode caught partly on videotape by a television news crew who happened to be there ó "front page of the Bangor Daily News," he notes. He is in the Supermax this time, he says, for having a "weight bar" in his cell.
Chasse is a classic jailhouse lawyer, able to reel off detailed legal citations from memory. He believes many placements in the SMU are illegal because they are based on rumors of what a prisoner might do. "This place runs on confidential information," he says, but he believes court decisions require "an independent assessment" of the credibility of an informer.
Like the other prisoners, he has a sad story to tell of his youth. But now, he says, he is trying to make his life meaningful ó though he expects to spend the rest of it behind bars ó "trying to help people through the laws. Iím devoting myself to protecting prisonersí constitutional rights."
About a month previous, says Chuck Limanni, an inmate threw a lunch tray back out the tray slot. The guards told him to come out and clean it up, and he refused:
"They instantly Maced him ó behind a locked door! Then the extraction team came . . . He was put in the restraint chair because he refused to clean up" the food on the cellblock floor, Limanni says indignantly.
He is another inmate who is concerned about Michael James: "That kid doesnít belong here. He never had a chance." The guards, he says, "antagonize him, call him names. It makes me sick. This place breeds hate. I hate cops. I hate the government."
He adds that the prison system "is set up to hurt you, to torture you."
Good-looking, with longish brown hair, 33, he was put in prison for robbery ó "not the first time" ó and in the SMU last May for, he says, "suspicion of drug trafficking." But, he says, no drugs were found.
He feels the real reason was "Iím a leader. I have a lot of willpower. Iím a political threat to them."
In the Supermax, "thereís no program here. If [the inmates] had something to do, they wouldnít be doing this shit" ó acting up.
OTHERS ó EVEN THE COMMISSIONER ó AGREE
Recognition of the problems of Maineís Supermax and of supermaxes in general is by no means restricted to those confined in it.
The process by which people are put in the Supermax is "completely unconscionable," says Rockland attorney Joseph Steinberger, who has represented a number of SMU inmates and now represents James. And once prisoners are there, "Basically they live like animals in cages," he says.
He is strongly opposed to keeping mentally ill people in such an environment:
"I had a client who was wildly delusional. He attacked a staff member. He had no idea what he had done. Because a judge insisted, he was brought to Riverview [the new state mental hospital]. He has made enormous progress there."
Riverview, he says, "is a fine place, but they have so few beds itís pathetic."
Behind this unpleasant scene, Steinberger says, "the real villain is the governor and the Legislature. Itís cheaper politically to keep them in a cage" ó but not cheaper financially, he adds.
He sees the entire prison system as largely a failure: "Thereís a heroin epidemic at the prison. Some people are getting addicted in prison who never used heroin before. Iíve defended at least a dozen people whoíve been accused of having heroin in prison."
Another Rockland attorney who also represents many prisoners, Barry Pretzel, finds the Supermax "inhumane and unacceptable." Of the extractions, he says, "it appears its purpose is to humiliate."
Like Steinberger, he is especially concerned about what the Supermax does to its many mentally ill prisoners. "Itís a circular pattern," he says. "It tends to make people who are mentally ill act up even more . . . A lot of the prisoners are in there for relatively minor offenses, but they end up serving Ďa life sentence on the installment plan,í as I heard a judge say."
A retired lawyer in Damariscotta, Richard Gerrity, has been campaigning for some time to have Michael James dealt with in a humane way. Protesting that the SMU "is a drop-off for the mentally ill that no one, including the inmates, want to deal with," he pleads in a letter to Commissioner Magnusson that James "needs to be moved immediately to a psychiatric institution before he destroys himself."
Others who have protested Maineís Supermax include Carol Carothers, a leader of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. In 2001, she was quoted in the Bangor Daily News as saying the Supermaxís practices "might have crossed into the realm of torture."
The Maine Civil Liberties Union and especially its parent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, have long protested mistreatment of prisoners.
"State officials across the country are realizing what the ACLU has been saying all along, which is that Supermax conditions are neither a humane nor an effective type of confinement," writes MCLU director Shenna Bellows in an email to me.
In 2000, in a case involving an SMU inmate, a Maine Superior Court judge, Andrew Mead, commented in his decision: "It is difficult to imagine any person ó mentally healthy or not ó bearing up under months of such conditions."
The ACLU has sued corrections officials in several states over Supermax conditions. In Wisconsin in 2002, the state agreed in a settlement to remedy conditions at its Supermax, including banning the confinement of seriously mentally ill prisoners. In Indiana earlier this year, the ACLU sued prison officials over that stateís Supermax, commenting in a press release: "Locking up prisoners with mental illness in small windowless cells is psychological torture." In a law review article, ACLU lawyer David Fathi notes that in the 1800s the United States Supreme Court referred to solitary confinement as torture.
In 2000, the United Nations questioned the United States government about torture, including housing mentally ill patients in supermaxes. The US responded, according to a UN press release, that in federal prisons: "Prisoners were screened and monitored for mental illness; and classification systems were in place so that confinement was not indefinite and that prisoners meeting certain criteria were transferred to less structured settings where appropriate." The US response did not deal with state prisons.
But the most significant critic of the Supermax, to me, may be Commissioner Magnusson. In our two-and-a-half-hour interview ó and even before I lay out fully the condemnations I had of the Supermax ó he agrees that much needs to be changed.
"We should be open to see if there are better ways to operate it," he says, and he talks of bringing in a national team of experts soon to see how this could be done.
When asked for comment on the Corrections Departmentís commitment to reform, Governor John Baldacci replies in a statement from his press office: "The governor is confident that the department led by Commissioner Marty Magnusson is not only open to constructive criticism, but embraces it ó thatís why we see improvements."
With the prison system as a whole, Magnusson says, his intention is "to go from a more punitive approach to more of a treatment approach."
He adds: "It will be a real struggle to get the staff to change." In a later telephone conversation, he comments: "I will piss off some of the staff by saying this."
Change may be a struggle for him, too, he admits: "I came up through a system where discipline is what you do."
In his law review article on the national Supermax scene, ACLU attorney David Fathi writes: "There are unmistakable signs that the bloom is off the Supermax experiment." Corrections Commissioner Magnussonís comments may indicate this is the case in Maine, too.
Lance Tapley can be reached at email@example.com
Next week: What reforms are practically and politically possible?page 3
Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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