A controversial bill that was designed to limit the use of solitary confinement passed the Maine Legislature on April 6 - sort of. The language of the original bill, which limited isolating prisoners from the general population to 45 days, maximum (with provisions for longer-term use), and which would exempt seriously mentally ill inmates from isolation altogether, was dropped and replaced with an amended bill.

The amended bill calls for more scrutiny of the use of solitary, but does not restrict its use. Under the new law, the Commissioner of Corrections will work with mental-health and substance-abuse focus groups to review the process of transferring prisoners into solitary confinement (officially known as the SMU, or Special Management Unit) and the policies that govern treatment of prisoners while segregated from the general population.

Rep. James Schatz of Blue Hill, who sponsored the bill, said the amended bill also requires the Commissioner of Corrections to regularly report to the legislative committee overseeing corrections matters. The commissioner will be required to submit recommendations for policy changes by the middle of next January.

"It's very important that it passed," said Schatz, who said he thinks the amended bill will provide important oversight of how solitary confinement is used and what practices are considered acceptable.

Warden Patricia Barnhart of the state Super Maximum Security Prison in Warren took issue with the term "solitary confinement," because it stirs up images that, she says, don't reflect what actually happens at the SuperMax.

Prisoners are segregated from the rest of the prison population, but they are not left alone, said Barnhart.

"There are staff all day long, 24 hours a day, in the unit," she said. "There are social workers, health care professionals, librarians ... it's just not this image people have of locking people away with no interaction. And it's a basic A plus B equals C approach, using positive reinforcement."

Barnhart said inmates assigned to the SMU typically stay 30 days, but current practice is that inmates can ask to be put back into the general population. Their request is reviewed and, if they meet behavior standards, can be granted.

"Most people would be surprised to find out that, first and foremost, our focus at the prison is to educate," she said.

"You know, we didn't even know about this bill beforehand," said Barnhart. "Nobody asked for our input. We were already making improvements before this bill came out."

Barnhart has been warden of the Maine State Prison in Warren for four months.

In the past, the SuperMax has come under scrutiny for overuse of the restraint chair, which is used to subdue violent inmates. Restraint-chair use is controversial nationwide because of deaths associated with blood clots forming after inmates have been restrained for extended lengths of time. Barnhart was emphatic that the restraint chair is not currently used as punishment and that inmates are only in it until they are manageable.

As a result of inquiries into restraint-chair use and due to other concerns with what was described as a "good-old-boy" culture that negatively affected staff and inmates and inhibited them from reporting problems at the prison, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (OPEGA) was asked to investigate procedures at the SuperMax, by request of the Maine State Legislature. The June 2009 OPEGA report indicated that there were "dramatic reductions in the use of the restraint chair for prisoners ... (but) management acknowledges the cultural change desired ... has not yet been achieved."

The OPEGA report recommended a deliberate strategy for changing the prison culture, with legislative oversight of the progress. LD 1611, as amended and passed, requires that oversight.

Rep. Schatz expects new proposed legislation on the issue next year, and he thinks the future bill will be stronger as a result of the process of deliberating LD 1611 this year, including taking into account more of the behind-the-bars realities of the prison space limitations and budgets.

"The Department of Corrections should feel less burdened as a result of this bill passing, since the oversight will pass to the (Legislative) Criminal Justice Committee," said Schatz.