This week PBS Frontline is airing “Solitary Nation” - a look at the use of solitary confinement here in Maine. Filmmakers spent hundreds of hours in the Maine State Prison documenting the facility’s use of the "Special Management Unit" or SMU.
Nationwide there has been growing debate around the use of solitary confinement – the practice of keeping a person in isolation in small poorly lit cells for 23-24 hours per day – as a disciplinary tool for prisoners who are difficult to manage in the general population. Research has shown that this practice causes serious mental deterioration and illness. Prisoners in solitary confinement hallucinate, they deliberately injure themselves, and they lose the ability to relate to other human beings. When prisoners are eventually released from solitary confinement, they have difficulties integrating into the general prison population or (especially when they are released directly onto the streets) into life on the outside.
When it comes to solitary confinement reform, Maine has been a national leader. As a result of over six years of advocacy by the ACLU of Maine and our colleagues, and leadership from our current Department of Corrections Commissioner, Maine reduced the population of its solitary confinement “Special Management Unit” by over 70%. Now, Maine prisoners who do end up in solitary confinement spend less time there, are treated like human beings while there, and are shown a clear path to reentry back into the general prison population. To read more about solitary confinement, and the ACLU of Maine’s work on reform please see our report Change is Possible: A Case Study of Solitary Confinement Reform in Maine. Maine has shown that the reform of solitary confinement can be undertaken without compromising the safety and security of prisoners and staff, and that due to reform, Maine’s prisons and communities are now safer more humane places.
Despite this, an estimated 80,000 Americans are in solitary confinement on any given day. And as the documentary demonstrates, even here Maine, we must continue to work towards further decreasing the use of this harmful practice.
As Frontline program director Dan Edge said in an interview this weekend with MPBN:
It was a huge challenge to film this. It was a psychological challenge for me and my team because we were spending between 12-16 hours a day in a unit surrounded by trauma and human distress… we filmed things which were very difficult to film, very difficult to keep the camera rolling, very difficult to keep watching and I’ve worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’ve seen very traumatic things in war zones and actually they didn’t compare to what I saw in the segregation unit. And so for the officers who work in that unit every day for years on end and for some of the inmates who live in that unit every day for as much as a year, [that] the psychological toll is almost incalculable I think.
Solitary confinement destroys lives, is a threat to public safety and extremely costly. Tune into PBS to learn more about the use of solitary nationally and in Maine.