Installed by conservative Maine Gov. LePage last winter, the state’s new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, 64, immediately set about reforming the prison system, says the Portland Phoenix. His priority was the Maine State Prison’s often-full-up, 132-cell solitary-confinement “supermax” unit, also known as the Special Management Unit, SMU, “segregation,” or “seg.” It was notorious for abusive treatment of prisoners, many mentally ill. The long terms of solitary, often for discipline, damaged inmates’ minds, and “cell extractions” of disobedient inmates by guards damaged their bodies.
Now, only about 34 prisoners are in solitary, 30 percent of the number often in isolation before Ponte took over — and most are there for brief stays. Cell extractions have dropped to almost none. Future reforms, Ponte says, include “more effective interaction at the street level” with offenders on probation to keep more out of prison. Half the inmates in prison are there because of probation revocations. Ponte has made the prisons more transparent. He appointed prisoner-rights advocates to a department committee designing the reforms and recently gave some of them a lengthy tour of the state prison, including the supermax. They met with dozens of inmates and staff. The tour “lifted away more shadows that have covered dysfunctional practices at the prison for decades,” says Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. She hopes Maine will become “a model for treatment of prisoners for the rest of the country.”