Last Thursday, Anna and I took a field trip to the Engine Art Gallery in Biddeford to see the exhibit “Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves.” In the exhibit letters from prisoners were super-imposed over their picture. Beside the photo a label listed their first name, crime, how many years they had served and how many they had left. All the letters expressed deep sadness and regret. These men – some who had committed very serious crimes – had lost everything, from watching their children grow up to deciding what to eat for dinner. 

A video also played in the front of the gallery. In the video, prisoners’ spoke about the content of their letters, their regrets and what life was like living in a prison. In the background we heard the sound of a clanking prison doors. It was clear that these were just men, who due to a certain set of circumstances had made a bad decision. Now, they are paying a huge price. I walked away from the exhibit with the sobering thoughts of what life would be like living in such a controlled world, a world where your who you talk to, where you go and what you chose to do is heavily monitored and limited. For me, the most frightening thought was being away from my friends and family – I take for granted the ability to see and speak with them daily.  For the over 2,000 Mainers currently serving time Maine state correctional facilities - away from their homes, families and friends - this is not possible. 

And I was also reminded that separation from loved ones is not the only form of isolation prisoners face. Over the last four decades, prisons across the country have increasingly relied on solitary confinement – isolation prisons 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. However, increasingly 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

As the public becomes increasingly aware of the harms of solitary confinement, other states are beginning to follow Maine’s example. On Friday, Anna blogged about reforms New York will be undertaking– a state with a horrible track record when it comes to use of solitary confinement.

Additionally we are also beginning to see movement on the federal level. On June 19th 2012, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held a hearing to assess the use of solitary confinement, its cost and impact on human rights and public safety.The Subcommittee heard diverse testimony from different advocacy groups - including the ACLU of Maine - faith communities, corrections officials and former prisoners

Today at 2:30, the Subcommittee will hold a second hearing on solitary confinement. To listen to the hearing live click here. To read the full testimony submitted to the Subcommittee by the ACLU of Maine please click here.

Solitary confinement destroys lives, is a threat to public safety and can violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Due to reform, Maine’s prisons and communities are now safer more human places. Maine is a model for what is possible across the country.