Dismantling ‘Supermax’

In major shift in Maine’s correctional philosophy, former isolation unit becomes place of trust and community

Published in The Free Press Nov. 16, 2021

by Jordan Andrews

Unrenovated cells in the former Supermax at Maine State Prison.
A cell repainted in colors chosen by residents of the new “Earned Living Unit” PHOTO: JORDAN ANDREWS

Earlier this month I toured Maine State Prison’s Supermax, the infamous maximum security segregation unit featured in the 2014 Frontline episode “Solitary Nation.” Inmates in paint-speckled shoes led me around the space, pointing out renovations they were working on — installing a washer and dryer, adding a stove to the kitchenette, preparing a gym and a dog grooming space in the lower level, and prepping the cells for paint.

“We’re in a painting frenzy,” said a resident named Tracy (the Department of Corrections’ Office of Victim Services requested that we use residents’ first names only). His cell was a cornflower blue with dandelion yellow trim. “I’m still puttering with it. I had someone helping me, which was really helpful because I haven’t painted in over 20 years.”

Built in1992, the Supermax is the oldest part of the prison — the rest was built around it 10 years later. Known as “the hole,” prisoners once were confined there 23 hours a day alone in small cells, much of that time bombarded with the screams and ragings of their block mates fighting or succumbing to insanity, breathing in the competing smells of excrement and mace as guards and inmates sparred in violent “cell extractions.”

Their only respite was a single hour a day spent in cages outside the building.

“I never ever actually envisioned living here, to be honest with you,” Tracy said. He did time in the Supermax in the 1990s. “But I like the whole premise, how they were going to orchestrate the unit, so I was right on board with it from day one.”

Tracy is among 11 inmates so far who have been moved to the former Supermax, now called the “Earned Living Unit,” for an experiment in community living and self-governance based on the Norwegian correctional model of “normalization,” in which life in prison is designed to resemble outside life as closely as possible.

Copying the Norwegian model to the letter isn’t an option here — Norway spends two to three times more per prisoner than the U.S. — but Maine DOC is taking cues from other corrections departments, like North Dakota’s, which have found ways to integrate elements of the Norwegian model without adding costs. The department has modified its language — inmates throughout the prison are now referred to as “residents,” for example — and is expanding educational and vocational programming and changing its mission statement.

“We have a lot of separate teams that are taking on major, major initiatives and culture change,” said MSP Warden Matthew Magnusson.

Another resident in the ELU, Josh, said he spent many years segregated in the Supermax and had an extremely difficult time — while there he witnessed another resident commit suicide. He was on the fence about applying to join the project but now believes he made the right decision.

“The whole vibe has changed,” he said.

“Everybody has a good attitude. Everyone’s been really helpful, really positive, you just feel a whole shift.”

Once thought of as a necessary security measure, prolonged solitary confinement, also known as segregation, is now widely recognized as torture with no rehabilitative value. It is prohibited under international law for those with mental or physical disabilities, and the United Nations’ Mandela Rules require it only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, and then for no more than14 days. In 2020, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture issued a statement against the U.S.’s excessive use of the sanction.

For the past several years, the Maine Department of Corrections has been steadily reducing its use of segregation and has brought it down to 1.5% of the population across all facilities. On the day I visited Maine State Prison, no one was being held in administrative or disciplinary segregation. By 2016, the numbers had dropped low enough for the administration to close the 50-bed Supermax, though it was used briefly as a quarantine space during the pandemic.

“The next step now, five years later, is repurposing that area, and turning it into something completely different than it was before,” said Magnusson.

In the ELU, residents must report to their prison jobs and other programming commitments, but otherwise they make their own schedules. It is the only living area where the doors remain unlocked, and the prisoners may freely go where they need to go — to grab a meal at chow, to attend classes in the activities building, to pick up supplies in the garage. There is no guard stationed in the living space (called pods in other buildings). Rather, one checks in once per hour.

Josh was among the first few inmates accepted into the program. He said they have spent hundreds of hours over the past three months washing the walls and vents that were covered in caked-on filth: bodily fluids, food, and layers and layers of mace. Power washing and sanding releases the mace, affecting them physically — causing their eyes to water and noses to run, and workers across the pod to start coughing — and, psychologically, inducing stronger memories of the trauma they experienced here.

A segregation cell in the lower level now stores garden boots and supplies. Residents will not be housed in the lower level, which served as a disciplinary segregation space in the former Supermax. PHOTO: JORDAN ANDREWS

Despite this, Shaun, another resident, said he is happy to participate in the work. When a staff person asked him why (“the f—”) he would want to move in before it was finished, he answered, “Let me ask you this, when do we ever get to have a hand in literally constructing the environment we’re gonna live in, not just the physical environment, but the culture of the environment, and everything that goes into it?”

Besides renovating the unit, the residents have been deciding how they want to run their community. They hold weekly meetings, led by a different resident each week, where they air new ideas on how to govern themselves and decide what work should be done next. (They’ve already developed a schedule for chores and posted it to the fridge.) Most of the 11 have known each other for more than 20 years, which has made it easier to build consensus.

To be eligible to join and remain in the unit, inmates must be discipline free for at least five years, have a prison job, and show that they are contributing to the prison community. Those admitted so far are considered by staff to be among the most trustworthy and respected inmates. Heather Richardson, manager of the Earned Living Unit and the Intensive Mental Health Unit, which is housed in the same building, said these men have been peer mentors, hospice volunteers, tutors, and advocates, and that eligibility for the ELU was based on what they have already been doing, before the new incentives were introduced.

New members are being admitted four or five per month, until they reach the maximum of 35, to allow them to adjust and so the others can show them the ropes.

“I was so acclimated to ‘secure’ for counts,” said Tracy. “The count is totally different down here, it’s kind of informal, not like out in the population, and that was very hard for me the first week.”

Shaun said that he would rush to get a shower immediately after getting back from work. It took him a while to realize that since they don’t get locked into their cells in the evening, he could shower any time.

“I was at a loss at first, I’m so used to doing things by the structure,” he said. “It’s tough getting used to that; it’s tough understanding that I could regulate my own schedule because I have the time.”

It is not uncommon for correctional officers to hang around and chat with the residents during their hourly check-ins. And one of the night captains sometimes brings his coffee and sits and talks with them for an hour or more. Shaun says that doesn’t happen in the pods, so he tells the newcomers to prepare themselves for that.

“You have to get out of the ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Shaun said. “The staff is part of this community, and that’s a different way of looking at things.”

Prison Administrative Coordinator James Hancox, who worked at the prison when the Supermax was in use, said there was hesitation at first among staff because it is a big change, “but the way I look at it is we’re taking the residents that are the most trusted, that never had incidents, never been written up and they’ve been here 20-30 years, some of them — Why wouldn’t we put a little more trust in them, let them normalize a little bit?”

The residents I spoke to said it usually takes an idea several years to move through the bureaucracy before coming to fruition, if it does at all. Shaun was calling the ELU “the Mythical Superpod,” but when the application came out, he applied. He was surprised at how quickly he was told he was accepted and would be moving in that night.

The lack of friction for the idea, Richardson said, comes from the complete buy-in from guards, sargeants, the warden and administration all the way up to DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty, whom she credits with introducing the idea. Liberty has been working to change the culture at the prison since he served as warden from 2015 through 2018. His legacy includes greenhouse gardening and beekeeping programs.

Though Richardson has not encountered any opposition from staff or officials, if someone from the outside community were to object to the easing of restrictions on the most well behaved prisoners she would tell them that “yes they absolutely committed a crime to get here, no doubt …but eventually the majority will be released back into the public, and we want them to be the best that they can be and not reoffend.”

“Honestly, most of them, they’ve never used a stove [in 20 to 30 years],” she continued. “We are not only giving them life skills to use in the community.”

Hancox told me that he was once at a soccer game of his daughter’s and recognized another player’s father as a former prisoner.

“Imagine [if] he had negative interactions with me here, and then all of a sudden I’m out there — and I’m just Jim out there, I’m not an officer, there’s no badge or anything,” he said. “He’s going to be my neighbor someday.”

For men who are serving life sentences, the change is a recognition of how profound a punishment confinement is itself — separated from family, society and nature — even without the added traumas typical of prison life.

Color is one of the first things the residents are bringing into the former Supermax, where they are able to paint their cells and common areas in colors of their choosing, outside of the neutral palette of the rest of the prison.

“I’m planning on greens and yellows, the colors of gardens,” Dennis, another resident, wrote in a letter. “What a pleasant departure that’ll be from institutional tans.”

The men have selected a warm yellow called “Cellini gold” for the walls in the common areas and an organic gray called “Bark” for the trim. I recognized these colors a few days later in the outside world: in a section of trail where tree trunks were set off against yellow leaves blanketing the forest floor, in setting sunlight flooding over the faded asphalt of an open road.

In the ELU, the men have an outdoor recreation area that is several times larger than in the other pods. It has a cement porch lined with plastic rocking chairs, and a chain link fence instead of high concrete walls on all sides.

A row of rocking chairs in the recreation area outside of Maine State Prison’s new Earned Living Unit PHOTO: JORDAN ANDREWS

“Having this,” Shaun said, gesturing to the view through the fence, “having the ability to see and have actual scenery was a big selling point, a big upgrade; but then being able to go out that gate…”

The most appreciated freedom the residents have been granted is access to a grassy yard, still surrounded by layers of fence and razor wire, but with a view of the Camden Hills.

“The joke has been, and it’s a joke but it’s serious, that if any of us were out there, really ever before now, you probably could get shot,” Shaun said. He said he makes a point to come out a few times a day and just look.

The yard is in view of the cell windows in the close custody building, so the residents there can look out and see the freedoms these men have. “It gives them something to strive for,” Richardson said.

The 11 have already set to work preparing a community garden in the yard. When I visited, a large plot was tilled and sprinkled with lime.

Dennis, who led a gardening program for a time at the old Maine State Prison building in Thomaston and participates in the current agricultural program, developed the community garden proposal in collaboration with the other ELU residents. It includes plans for providing fresh vegetables and flowers to the greater prison community, with long-term goals of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association certification and a small orchard.

“Joy! I feel it daily,” Dennis wrote. “I’ve never been part of a more significant experiment than this one.”

He was in awe when he was sitting outside in a rocking chair one day, and a squirrel came through the gate, crossed the rec area, then ran along the porch and perched close by on the rail.

“That was the first time I’d seen a squirrel in over 30 years,” he said.

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