Portland – The ACLU of Maine submitted testimony to Congress for a hearing today on the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement.  Solitary confinement is the controversial practice of locking a prisoner up alone for 23 to 24 hours a day with limited human contact for a period of days, months, years or even decades.  Today the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights is holding the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement, titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences.”  The ACLU of Maine testimony details Maine’s success in reducing the use of solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison by more than 70% over the last year.

“Maine has successfully improved human rights, reduced cost and maintained safety at the Maine State Prison by reducing solitary confinement by more than 70% in one year,” said Shenna Bellows, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maine.  “We applaud the Maine Department of Corrections for taking steps to end the practice of locking prisoners up alone for 23 to 24 hours a day with limited human contact.”

Nationally, Maine has become a leader in the movement to reduce solitary confinement.  As states struggle with rising prison costs and prison populations that are higher than any other country in the world, Maine’s success provides a roadmap for reform.  Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte testified at an April hearing in Illinois about the potential closing of the controversial Tamms Correctional Center, which holds prisoners in long-term solitary confinement, often for a decade or more.

“Through determination and leadership by both the advocacy community and Commissioner Joseph Ponte, Maine has shown it is possible to reduce solitary confinement without sacrificing safety,” said Alysia Melnick, Public Policy Counsel of the ACLU of Maine.  “Maine’s success is now a model for reform.”

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and keeps more people in prison and jail than any other country in the world including those with most repressive dictators. The vast majority of prisoners in solitary confinement are eventually released back into our communities.  Unfortunately, prisoners deprived of normal human contact cannot properly reintegrate into society, resulting in higher recidivism rates.

Solitary confinement causes and exacerbates mental illness.  The mentally ill often deteriorate catastrophically in solitary, leading courts to consistently find that subjecting the mentally ill to solitary is cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

“Solitary confinement is fundamentally inhumane, threatens our public safety and wastes taxpayer dollars,” said ACLU of Maine Executive Director Shenna Bellows.  “The federal government should follow in Maine’s footsteps to adopt a more sensible, humane and cost effective approach to prison management.”

The hearing, which will be chaired by Senator Dick Durbin, will begin at 10 a.m. and will be available via webcast online at http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/resources/webcasts/index.cfm. 

Among others, the committee will hear from Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps, who is rethinking the use of solitary in Mississippi correctional facilities; Anthony Graves, who spent years in solitary on Texas’ death row before being exonerated; Dr. Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz who has studied and written about psychological trauma among prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement; and Pat Nolan of the Justice Fellowship/Prison Fellowship Ministries, a leader in the conservative movement for criminal justice reform.


Shenna Bellows, ACLU of Maine, (207) 774-5444, sbellows@aclumaine.org
Alysia Melnick, ACLU of Maine, (207) 774-5444, amelnick@aclumaine.org