Prisoners protest solitary confinement by another name with hunger strike

Nov. 18, 2021

by Jordan Andrews

As the last issue of The Free Press went to print Monday, November 15, with its cover story about the conversion of Maine State Prison’s former “Supermax” segregation unit into an “Earned Living Unit,” several prisoners were beginning a hunger strike to protest their segregation in another part of the prison called the Administrative Control Unit. A prison spokesperson said the hunger strike ended Thursday.

One of the inmates, Nicholas Gladu, contacted the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition via text and alleged conditions strikingly similar to those of the former Supermax when was in use: 

“We are locked in at least 22 hours per day. We receive 2 hours of outside recreation only in a 12′x14′ foot pen. No inside recreation whatsoever, even tho policy requires it. So, rain, snow, or bitter cold we can go outside for our 2 hours out of our cell time or forfeit rec alltogether and stay locked down 24/7

“Certain staff get bored and intentionally set out to push buttons until they get someone to freak out, just so they can hose them down with 10x the amount of mace allowed”

“The game is using different names for the same thing,” said Peter Lehman, legislative coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, who received the texts from Gladu.

He said that MPAC is working on a bill to ban solitary confinement in Maine and is revising it because of language difficulties.

“When Representative Grayson Lookner (D-Portland) submitted it with the best of intentions, he thought it would be enough to say we don’t want to have solitary confinement,” Lehman said. “Well you just changed the name and called it something else.”

My story on the Supermax conversion included a statement that the prison had, on the day I visited, no one in administrative or disciplinary segregation, which are common terms for solitary confinement. The statement came from the following exchange with Unit Manager Heather Richardson:

Richardson: “Right now we are down to zero in restrictive housing right now at this facility. Nobody in restrictive housing. So our numbers are zero.” 

JA: “All right, so that includes administrative segregation?”

Richardson: “That includes administrative status, that includes disciplinary segregation. We have nobody.” 

JA: “Interesting, and how long has that been zero?”

Richardson: “We just recently went to zero.” 

In DOC terminology, “administrative status” and “disciplinary restriction” fall under the category of “restrictive housing,” and the average numbers of residents per day in those groups were listed as 3.6 and 4.7 for October, according to DOC’s monthly data report. (November’s has not been published yet.)

But there is another category, called “special management,” which refers to inmates housed in the Administrative Control Unit, the location of last week’s hunger strike. That had an average of 12 people per day in October. 

According to DOC policy, the Administrative Control Unit is where a prisoner is confined “for a period of intensive security and programming” if returning them to general population “may pose a repeated or serious threat to the safety of others, risk of escape, or another repeated or serious threat to facility security.” It stipulates that the prisoner can be confined to a cell for up to 22 hours per day.

The reporting data also includes the average length of time served in the Administrative Control Unit for people who were released that month. Several months have no data, because no one was released in those months. For October that figure was 340.5 days.

Maine State Prison Warden Matthew Magnusson said in a phone call November 22 that the ACU does not meet the American Correctional Association’s definition of restrictive housing, which is being confined to a cell for more than 22 hours a day. Only those on level one of a privilege level system used in the ACU who choose not to participate in the extensive programming offered in the unit would be in cell for the full 22 hours, he said. Magnusson said most residents move out of level one within the first 30 days in the unit, and that in the past six months there has been a 46% turnover in the ACU. 

Far from being solitary, he said, guards do rounds every half hour,  a shift commander and unit manager also do rounds each shift, and a full time case manager gives the nine cases in the ACU a lot of individual attention.  

He disputed Gladu’s allegations, saying that in the past six months, there had been only one use-of-force incident and one “application of chemicals.” He noted that this prisoner had been previously released from the ACU, only to assault a correctional officer, and was then returned to the unit.

However, Lehman said DOC officials misled the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety by not mentioning those held in the ACU. In an April 5 hearing for the bill to ban solitary confinement, which has been tabled until next session, DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty told the committee that in January, Rep. Lookner met with DOC staff and they “discussed that MDOC’s policies prohibit the use of solitary confinement, discussed the statute regarding segregation, which we refer to as restrictive housing,” and discussed the reasons a resident would be placed in restrictive housing. 

“Maine’s progressive steps away from the practices like solitary confinement and increased programming and contact during periods of restriction have been recognized nationally by Vera Institute of Justice and others including The Liman Center for Public Interest at the Yale Law School,” he continued. “This national recognition is due, in part, to the significant work the department has made to reduce the use of restrictive housing. We’ve achieved a 72% reduction in restrictive housing placements since 2015.”

He also discussed the challenge of maintaining safety in the facility and the need for restrictive housing for the most violent inmates.

Those housed in the ACU, whom Liberty did not mention in his testimony, were not counted toward the restrictive housing numbers.

He told the committee: “Currently we have less than 8 individuals that are on administrative status, 8 of the 1,700; the average length of stay for males is 6.7 days in that administrative status, and for female residents it is 1.75 individuals engaged …”

The April report is not available on the DOC website, but a graph in the October report shows that the numbers in the ACU had been increasing from January through April, to just under 1% of the total population, or 15 men. There was no average length of stay data listed for April, but for June the average was 329.66 days. 

Source: DOC October 2021 Data Report

“Part of what has prompted the hunger strike is the department publicly saying that they don’t do this anymore,” Lehman said. “Here are eight guys who say, well hang on a second, we’re living this.”

Magnusson reiterated that those housed in the ACU are not counted in the restrictive housing statistics not only because of the time offered out of cell, but also because of the many other privileges that the residents have access to. 

“People can earn up to more than five hours of free time, plus as much programming opportunities as they choose to participate in,” he said. “We also have paying jobs down there, people come out and do cleaning assignments. We have TVs and electronics. … It’s comparing apples to oranges.”

According to texts sent to Lehman, those on the hunger strike were demanding that the administration stop restricting phone calls for prisoners on Level One of a privilege level system used in the ACU; allow TVs for people on all levels; stop using food as a privilege or incentive; improve access to medical and mental health care; allow access to religious services; address antagonism and excessive use of chemical agents by staff; and develop objective criteria for advancement through the level system.

We have not been able to communicate with prisoners on the strike.

Magnusson said that the DOC deputy commissioner met with residents on the hunger strike and explained to them how to submit policy change requests to a policy workgroup. However, he said many of their requests were able to be met through the unit manager. One resident wanted access to a rolling phone which can be brought to the individual’s cell and used inside. Another wanted access to a role-playing program called Pathfinders (“It’s actually Dungeons and Dragons,” Magunsson said.) 

He said that both of those requests have been implemented. 

Anna Black, spokeswoman for the Maine State Prison, said in an email that the hunger strike ended on Thursday morning and that the number of prisoners involved varied throughout the three days, with a high of five on Tuesday. She said that medical and behavioral health staff were regularly evaluating and monitoring the residents.

“Prison staff is pleased they were able to have constructive engagement throughout the three days with residents and that it remained peaceful and all participating residents remained safe and healthy,” she wrote.   

In the April 5 hearing, all submitted testimony was in support of Lookner’s bill because of the severe psychological damage caused by solitary confinement, except for Liberty’s and The Criminal Law Advisory Committee’s, which were neither for nor against it. The CLAC raised concerns about the definition of solitary confinement provided in the bill, as less than three interactions with another human being in 24 hours, and suggested that it be changed “so that it covers current housing conditions that are commonly understood as solitary confinement.”

A 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Justice on the use of solitary confinement noted that correctional staff avoid the term because of its negative connotations, and that the common terminology used can have a range of definitions.  For these reasons, the report adopted “the more general term ‘restrictive housing’,” which it defines as removal from the general population, placement in a locked room or cell, and “inability to leave the cell for the vast majority of the day, typically 22 hours or more.”

“It is not enough to say that an inmate is in ‘restrictive housing’ (or ‘solitary confinement,’ for that matter);” the authors wrote, “It is just as important to know the details of the placement.” 

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