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Torture in Maine’s prison
Inside the Supermax: Testimony from six prisoners and a videotape; the head of Corrections promises reform
BY LANCE TAPLEY

"The mission of the Maine State Prison is to provide a safe, secure, and humane correctional environment for the incarcerated offender."

Five hollering guards wearing helmets, face shields, and full body armor charge into a mentally ill man’s cell. The first attacker smashes a big shield into him, knocking him down. The attackers jump on him, spray Mace into his face, push him onto his bed, and twist his arms to his back so they can handcuff him. They connect the cuffs by a chain to leg irons. Then they take him into the corridor, cut off all his clothes, and carry him naked and screaming through the cellblock, continuing to Mace him. They put him in an observation room where they bind him to a restraint chair with straps. He remains there naked and cold for hours, yelling and mumbling.

To many people, this scene would look like torture. A scene like it might have taken place in the infamous Abu Graib prison near Baghdad, where American soldiers tormented captured Iraqis. But as described to me independently by six prisoners, including some who have suffered this attack, it is business as usual — an "extraction" for disobedience — in the Special Management Unit, also known as the SMU or the "Supermax," a 100-cell, maximum-security, solitary-confinement facility inside the new 1100-inmate Maine State Prison in Warren. The Supermax’s regulations say it is a place for prisoners who are threats to others, are escape risks, are found with contraband, or who simply don’t obey the rules.

For me to verify the prisoners’ stories, a source who wished not to be identified — to preserve his relationship with the prison — gave the Phoenix a videotape of a cell extraction of a young man. He was not one of the men I interviewed. The prison tapes each extraction in order to prove, some people would say ironically, that the prisoner is not mistreated. The videotape I obtained, although dated to 2000, corroborates the stories I heard. In the end, the man is fully naked in the restraint chair, with no trace of human dignity. My source tells me sometimes there are women guards present. According to the prisoners I interviewed, it gets a lot worse than what the video depicts.

After collecting this and other information that suggest the Supermax fits some classic definitions of torture, I went to interview Maine’s corrections commissioner, Martin Magnusson, in his Augusta office beside the beautiful, smooth Kennebec River. He is, at 57, a plain-speaking, heavy-set, balding man and the former warden of the prison.

As I begin reading the notes that became the first paragraph of this story, he interrupts me halfway through, his demeanor gloomy.

He wants to "de-escalate use of the restraint chair," he says, and he is developing a plan to do it. Although he believes there are legitimate reasons for extractions, and he says more than 200 have already been done this year, he has tried to tighten up the rules on them, he claims. And he has reduced use of the chair from 1300 in 2003 to a rate that will see 900 uses by the end of this year, he says. I haven’t been able to discern an exact number, but other states do use the restraint chair and the method of extraction.

While woman guards may be present when such discipline occurs, he says he ordered over a year ago that prisoners be clothed while in the chair, whenever practicable. He also claims that now "in no way is the chair being used for punishment," although the Supermax prisoners dispute this. Rather, he says, it is used when someone is a threat to others or himself. He adds: "That was always the way it was supposed to be," but he admits that in the past each case "wasn’t being reviewed."

He also announces what appears to be a major turnaround: He wants to reform the way many things are done at the Supermax. "We need to look at the system and see how we can do better," he says, suggesting that carrots (rewards) might be emphasized over sticks (punishment).

The treatment of prisoners at the Supermax has long been controversial. Prisoners, defense attorneys, and the few prison watchdog organizations tend to portray the extractions — and the entire supermax system, which in the past 20 years has become widespread across the country — as part of a cruel, unnecessary, counterproductive, and expensive-to-the-taxpayer cycle of violence that has roughly shoved aside all pretence of "corrections."

They depict the worst part of this cycle in this way:

• First, a mentally ill or unstable prisoner is brought to the Supermax, often for a nonviolent violation like having contraband such as forbidden tools or illegal drugs (by numerous reports, heroin is prevalent in the prison).

• Next, the prisoner acts up under the pressure of weeks or months of confinement to his cell and under the stress of living with more-disturbed prisoners in his cellblock, some of whom throw their urine, feces, and blood at the guards, who become frightened and incensed.

• If he commits a violation of Supermax discipline, as punishment the guards extract the prisoner from his cell and put him in a restraint chair.

• After one or more of these harsh episodes, the prisoner becomes more mentally ill. He may become one of those who throw filth at the guards, creating an extremely hazardous situation for them, himself, and other prisoners. Each prisoner I interviewed complained vigorously that the SMU was not properly cleaned — in fact, that it reeked of excrement, urine, and blood.

• Once again, the prisoner is extracted and put in a restraint chair — possibly, many times more. This treatment drives him crazier. He likely will be prosecuted for assault on the guards and sentenced to five more years in prison, much of which time he may spend in the SMU.

• Finally, the prisoner shows all the symptoms of being totally insane, in despair, and suicidal — and suicidal threats lead to more extractions.

Magnusson, the corrections commissioner, says "there’s some truth" to this cycle, though he feels "it doesn’t happen that much."

The truth is hard to verify precisely. Many prisoners have made their way in the world through deception. Two defense attorneys who are horrified by the Supermax nevertheless warned me against accepting everything I heard from prisoners at face value. But the prisoners’ stories and those collected by prison critics hang together well.

And the prisoners seem more forthcoming than their keepers. The prison was at first uncooperative with my efforts to interview inmates and continued to be uncooperative with my wish to interview prison personnel. I never was allowed to interview the warden, Jeffrey Merrill, who has been sick — but neither was I allowed to interview his deputies. The Supermax was off limits to me. It appears to be off limits to almost all independent observers.

After the intervention of the governor’s office, however, I finally was allowed to see the six prisoners. I was separated from them by thick glass, and we spoke through tinny speakers. They were in handcuffs, leg irons, and orange prison jumpsuits.

And I finally obtained a lengthy interview with Commissioner Magnusson. Surprisingly, he did not want to defend the Supermax as much as he wanted to convince me he was going to reform it.

Both he and prison critics have similar explanations of why these big, high-tech institutions were built across the country, with their restraint chairs, in the 1980s and 1990s. As America’s incarceration rate, which became the highest in the world, went through the roof of the old state prisons, the population explosion threw the old and new prisons into turmoil; and supermaxes segregated the most troublesome inmates. According to some prison critics, supermaxes also were part of the mushrooming, profitable prison industry and something of a cruel fad.

Maine’s Supermax, originally a freestanding facility, opened in 1992. In 2001, the new state prison, which replaced Thomaston’s 1824 landmark, was built around it. Literally and metaphorically, it is at the core of the new prison system.

Prison critics say that supermaxes and the rest of our country’s prison policies are failures, as irrefutably demonstrated by the high recidivism rate among prisoners — their return to crime — and by the continuing tumult roiling the many new prisons, including Maine’s.

MICHAEL JAMES

"They beat the shit out of you," says SMU prisoner Michael James, speaking hunched against the thick glass. He is talking about the extractions he’s endured. "They push you, knee you, poke you." The guards’ full roughness doesn’t get captured on the videos, he says, because the camera gazes at the guards’ backs.

"They slam your head against the wall and drop you on the floor while you are cuffed," James says, showing a scar on his chin — "They split it wide open."

"They’re yelling ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ when you are not even moving," he says, although he admits he resists sometimes. He says he’s been Maced countless times and has spent long periods in the restraint chair.

"There’s a lot who shouldn’t work here because they get a kick out of controlling people," he adds.

Then he says, his eyes brightening: "There’s some [guards] that are absolutely awesome."

You know, instantly, something is wrong when you meet an otherwise handsome Michael James, 22. He has a small top of the head and a very prominent brow ridge over deep-set eyes. You notice the scars on his shaved head — including, when he bends over, a deep, horizontal gash on the top. He got this, he says, by scraping his head over and over on the metal slot in his cell door used for passing in food trays.

"They were messing with me," he explains. "I couldn’t stand it no more."

He is referring to the guards, who he says taunt him.

"I’ve knocked myself out by running full force into the [cell] wall" in frustration, he says.

James says a family member beat him as a child: "I got a broken nose. I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall." He started seeing mental-health workers when he was four, he says, and getting medication for his mental problems when he was seven. He only made it through the second grade in regular school, he says, and he spent most of his childhood in the state’s mental hospitals and homes for mentally disturbed children.

He’s been diagnosed, he says, with bipolar disorder (manic depression) and antisocial personality disorder. He says his other diagnoses are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. He is on several psychotropic medications, he says, but he claims he seldom gets to see a mental-health worker.

His lawyer, Joseph Steinberger of Rockland, is trying to get him admitted to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which has replaced the Augusta Mental Health Institute. But for the prison authorities "to admit that I need to be there would be to admit that they were wrong," James says.

He was in trouble with the law as a juvenile, he says, but his real problems began when he was taken off medications by one hospital when he was 18. He says he got into "selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries." His combination of offenses has resulted in his current 12-year sentence. Of the four years he has been in prison, all but five months have been spent in the SMU, he says.

James confirms a story I heard from another prisoner: He believes a guard asked a convicted murderer how much it would cost to have James killed. James made an internal prison complaint, but he says nothing was done because the guard said he was only joking.

He is facing a November 28 trial for assaulting an officer by throwing feces on him. His lawyer, he says, will plead insanity.

The SMU is "disgusting, filthy," he says. "The showers haven’t been cleaned for months. There’s slime and blood and shit on the walls. They just sweep it up."

Snow comes under the door of his cell in the winter, he says, and the food is insufficient. He says the doors to two inmates’ cells are chained so that if a fire begins they could not get out when the doors are opened automatically.

"It’s mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves," he says.

But the worst thing about prison, he believes, beyond all that he describes, is "they deny me access to better myself."

Other Supermax prisoners confirm James’s story and his complaints. All the others I talk with are worried about him. As I go through my interviews, I am struck by how concerned these criminals are for each other, how candid they seem about their crimes and psychological problems, and how articulate many of them are.

DEANE BROWN

One of the most articulate is Deane Brown, 41, a big man with long, dark hair, a Fu Manchu beard, and lively eyes. Sentenced to 59 years for a string of burglaries in the mid-’90s, he jokes that he was given a far longer sentence than the man who murdered his brother. He recently marked the point when he has spent the majority of his life in prison.

He is worried he will soon be transferred out of state — as several Supermax friends recently were — because of his complaints about conditions there. He has written letters posted on the Web site called the Maine Supermax Watch (http://penbay.org/WRFR/prisonproject/deanebrown.html) and has had his telephone calls played over WRFR, a small Rockland nonprofit radio station.

He was put in the Supermax in May for possessing contraband, he says — such things as a razor blade, a screwdriver, a soldering iron, and wire, all of which he claims he used for fixing other inmates’ televisions and electronic devices. But the prison views him as an escape risk, he says.

"They put you down here for any reason," he says. "There is no charge against me for trying to escape." He believes that, under a recent United States Supreme Court decision, Supermax prisoners are entitled to due process on their placement in such a restrictive setting. He says the prison gives him no idea what he has to do to be readmitted to the general prison population.

Since being put in the SMU, he has become concerned about his teeth, which are visibly loose and coated with gray plaque. He isn’t allowed a toothbrush or floss, he says. He shows me a tiny plastic device the prison gave him. It fits over the tip of a finger. It does not work well enough to keep his teeth clean, he says.

He is protesting the SMU by not taking his diabetic medicine, he says. He feels his health is more threatened by the SMU’s lack of hygiene. The food cart is "dragged through feces," and "the ceiling is plastered with feces," he says.

"It’s supposed to be an administrative program for correcting behavior, but it’s creating animals," he says. "I saw a guy eat his own feces."

Seeing me wince, Brown half-apologizes: "I know it’s distressing."

Of Michael James, he says: "I saw him bare-assed naked in chains being dragged through the cellblock." He believes James has spent more time in the restraint chair than anyone else.

Brown says he saw another prisoner after a cell extraction with his eye and nose bleeding.

He believes the SMU’s 23-hour daily lockdown is psychological torture. It’s a combination, he says, of sensory deprivation, a constant cellblock din with no diverting radio or TV allowed, and with lights on 24/7. For one hour, five days a week, he says, the prisoners are allowed to exercise in a 6-foot-wide, 30-foot-long cage that he calls a "kennel."

Although Brown refers to others in the SMU as mentally ill, he says he has been in a mental institution and a number of homes for troubled children and adolescents. He suffered early child abuse, he says, recounting how he was chained to the sink at home. He spent years at a boot-camp-type institution for drug abusers that he considers abusive, he says: "Three times they tied me up and buried me up to my neck in dirt overnight in the cold."

Obviously quite intelligent, he is teaching himself ancient Greek. He also is reading at the same time the Bible and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (of "God is dead" fame) and comparing them.

"Something inside of you that tells you something is wrong . . . that’s God," he says.

JOSEPH REEVES

"I had my arm broken while handcuffed behind my back while face down on the floor and Maced so I couldn’t see," recounts Joseph Reeves, 25, a narrow-faced man with a wispy, billy-goat beard and delicate tattoos on his pale skin.

Guards broke his arm during an extraction, he says: "They said I wouldn’t open my hands, but I was handcuffed and I blacked out. My hands were clenched."

When he came back to the unit from the hospital, he says, the prison staff, suspecting contraband in the cast, cut it off with dull scissors. As a result of the arm not healing properly, he has a piece of loose bone in it, he says.

He, too, is concerned about Michael James: "They constantly beat that kid." Such mentally troubled inmates "would rather die than be here," he says. Lots of SMU inmates have tried to kill themselves, he claims.

He has had mental problems. "I’m impulsive," he admits, a trait that leads him sometimes to resist the extractions. He has been in several mental institutions, he says, and he feels he doesn’t get the care for his mental problems that he needs.

He also is upset with what he calls "sexual intimidation" in the form of strip searches and "butt searches."

The guards "at the drop of a hat will Mace you," he says. Like the other prisoners I interviewed, he says of the guards "there are good ones, but they are so outnumbered." The prisoners speak fondly of the "good" guards.

Reeves is serving a five-year term for robbery and gun possession, he says, and much of it so far has been spent in the SMU.

After my visit, he wrote me that he is in a 16-cell "pod" all by himself. He sent me pages from an Amnesty International publication on how isolation, degradation, threats, and "monopolization of perception" constitute torture.

NORMAN KEHLING

Norman Kehling, 47, small, balding, seemingly a calm type, is the former head of the institution’s "long timers" group, he says. He has been in the Maine State Prison since 1989, serving 40 years for arson — a record sentence, he believes, when no one was hurt in the blaze. He is in the SMU this time for trafficking in heroin, he says. There is "quite a bit" of heroin in the prison, he claims.

Also confirming the other descriptions of the extractions, Kehling tells of what happened to a young prisoner who pulled a sprinkler alarm: "They told him to cuff up. Then they rolled in on him with a team [in his cell]. They put it to him, plowed into him, took him down."

"A lot of people act up" in the Supermax, he says, because "It’s easy to stir these people up," describing the guards as instigators. And part of the problem, he says, is that the guards are scared: "I’ve seen them shaking."

He doesn’t believe there is meaningful help for mental-health cases in the Supermax:

"One guy cut his testicle out of his sack . . . They shouldn’t be here."

He adds: "This place breeds hate. What they’re doing obviously isn’t working."

MICHAEL CHASSE

"Conditions have been consistently filthy for the last eight years since I’ve 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. There’s 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 — 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. I’ve seen him get beat up. I’ve 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 doesn’t make that claim for himself: "I’m 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 — "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 — though he expects to spend the rest of it behind bars — "trying to help people through the laws. I’m devoting myself to protecting prisoners’ constitutional rights."

CHARLES LIMANNI

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 — 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 doesn’t 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 — "not the first time" — 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 "I’m a leader. I have a lot of willpower. I’m a political threat to them."

In the Supermax, "there’s no program here. If [the inmates] had something to do, they wouldn’t be doing this shit" — acting up.

OTHERS — EVEN THE COMMISSIONER — AGREE

Recognition of the problems of Maine’s 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 it’s pathetic."

Behind this unpleasant scene, Steinberger says, "the real villain is the governor and the Legislature. It’s cheaper politically to keep them in a cage" — but not cheaper financially, he adds.

He sees the entire prison system as largely a failure: "There’s a heroin epidemic at the prison. Some people are getting addicted in prison who never used heroin before. I’ve defended at least a dozen people who’ve 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. "It’s 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 ‘a life sentence on the installment plan,’ 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 Maine’s 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 Supermax’s 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 — mentally healthy or not — 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 state’s 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 — and even before I lay out fully the condemnations I had of the Supermax — 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 Department’s 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 — that’s 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 Magnusson’s comments may indicate this is the case in Maine, too.

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@prexar.com

Videos

Click still to watch each clip in Apple's Quicktime format

A WARNING TO POTENTIAL VIEWERS

The extremely explicit and graphic scenes on this tape are real. They are not for the faint of heart. They include nudity and violence. Anyone who views them should be prepared to be disturbed and outraged. We have blurred the faces of the inmate and the guards in order to protect their privacy.

The three video clips represent one minute and thirty seconds of a more-than hourlong video that chronicled the 2000 "extraction" of a prisoner from his cell inside Maine’s Supermax and his placement in the prison’s restraint chair. As Lance Tapley explains in the story (part one, part two), the "prison tapes each extraction in order to prove, some people would say ironically, that the prisoner is not being mistreated."

The full video starts with the guards receiving instructions from a superior on the inmate’s situation, his extraction from his cell, and his march toward the hallway outside the restraint room, where he is forced to the ground and sprayed in the face with what looks like pepper spray. The prisoner’s clothes are then cut off until he is nude. He is picked up off the floor and thrown into a chair, where a guard again sprays him repeatedly while three other guards strap him in. The bulk of the video shows the naked prisoner in the chair, trying to get free, and yelling to the guards: "I am sitting in piss." Through the reflection of the window-enclosed room, guards can be seen periodically looking in on the suspect.

It is important to bear in mind that the actions captured in these clips are not outlawed. They are sanctioned by the state, and the guards are shown are working within a well-established legal framework. By showing these tapes we aim to bring to public attention to the internal workings of Maine Supermax and similar correctional facilities across the nation.


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