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Torture in Maineís prison (continued)


James says a family member beat him as a child: "I got a broken nose. I was punched, kicked, slapped, bitten, thrown against the wall." He started seeing mental-health workers when he was four, he says, and getting medication for his mental problems when he was seven. He only made it through the second grade in regular school, he says, and he spent most of his childhood in the stateís mental hospitals and homes for mentally disturbed children.

Heís been diagnosed, he says, with bipolar disorder (manic depression) and antisocial personality disorder. He says his other diagnoses are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder. He is on several psychotropic medications, he says, but he claims he seldom gets to see a mental-health worker.

His lawyer, Joseph Steinberger of Rockland, is trying to get him admitted to the stateís Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which has replaced the Augusta Mental Health Institute. But for the prison authorities "to admit that I need to be there would be to admit that they were wrong," James says.

He was in trouble with the law as a juvenile, he says, but his real problems began when he was taken off medications by one hospital when he was 18. He says he got into "selling drugs, robbing people, fighting, burglaries." His combination of offenses has resulted in his current 12-year sentence. Of the four years he has been in prison, all but five months have been spent in the SMU, he says.

James confirms a story I heard from another prisoner: He believes a guard asked a convicted murderer how much it would cost to have James killed. James made an internal prison complaint, but he says nothing was done because the guard said he was only joking.

He is facing a November 28 trial for assaulting an officer by throwing feces on him. His lawyer, he says, will plead insanity.

The SMU is "disgusting, filthy," he says. "The showers havenít been cleaned for months. Thereís slime and blood and shit on the walls. They just sweep it up."

Snow comes under the door of his cell in the winter, he says, and the food is insufficient. He says the doors to two inmatesí cells are chained so that if a fire begins they could not get out when the doors are opened automatically.

"Itís mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves," he says.

But the worst thing about prison, he believes, beyond all that he describes, is "they deny me access to better myself."

Other Supermax prisoners confirm Jamesís story and his complaints. All the others I talk with are worried about him. As I go through my interviews, I am struck by how concerned these criminals are for each other, how candid they seem about their crimes and psychological problems, and how articulate many of them are.

DEANE BROWN

One of the most articulate is Deane Brown, 41, a big man with long, dark hair, a Fu Manchu beard, and lively eyes. Sentenced to 59 years for a string of burglaries in the mid-í90s, he jokes that he was given a far longer sentence than the man who murdered his brother. He recently marked the point when he has spent the majority of his life in prison.

He is worried he will soon be transferred out of state ó as several Supermax friends recently were ó because of his complaints about conditions there. He has written letters posted on the Web site called the Maine Supermax Watch (http://penbay.org/WRFR/prisonproject/deanebrown.html) and has had his telephone calls played over WRFR, a small Rockland nonprofit radio station.

He was put in the Supermax in May for possessing contraband, he says ó such things as a razor blade, a screwdriver, a soldering iron, and wire, all of which he claims he used for fixing other inmatesí televisions and electronic devices. But the prison views him as an escape risk, he says.

"They put you down here for any reason," he says. "There is no charge against me for trying to escape." He believes that, under a recent United States Supreme Court decision, Supermax prisoners are entitled to due process on their placement in such a restrictive setting. He says the prison gives him no idea what he has to do to be readmitted to the general prison population.

Since being put in the SMU, he has become concerned about his teeth, which are visibly loose and coated with gray plaque. He isnít allowed a toothbrush or floss, he says. He shows me a tiny plastic device the prison gave him. It fits over the tip of a finger. It does not work well enough to keep his teeth clean, he says.

He is protesting the SMU by not taking his diabetic medicine, he says. He feels his health is more threatened by the SMUís lack of hygiene. The food cart is "dragged through feces," and "the ceiling is plastered with feces," he says.

"Itís supposed to be an administrative program for correcting behavior, but itís creating animals," he says. "I saw a guy eat his own feces."

Seeing me wince, Brown half-apologizes: "I know itís distressing."

Of Michael James, he says: "I saw him bare-assed naked in chains being dragged through the cellblock." He believes James has spent more time in the restraint chair than anyone else.

Brown says he saw another prisoner after a cell extraction with his eye and nose bleeding.

He believes the SMUís 23-hour daily lockdown is psychological torture. Itís a combination, he says, of sensory deprivation, a constant cellblock din with no diverting radio or TV allowed, and with lights on 24/7. For one hour, five days a week, he says, the prisoners are allowed to exercise in a 6-foot-wide, 30-foot-long cage that he calls a "kennel."

Although Brown refers to others in the SMU as mentally ill, he says he has been in a mental institution and a number of homes for troubled children and adolescents. He suffered early child abuse, he says, recounting how he was chained to the sink at home. He spent years at a boot-camp-type institution for drug abusers that he considers abusive, he says: "Three times they tied me up and buried me up to my neck in dirt overnight in the cold."

Obviously quite intelligent, he is teaching himself ancient Greek. He also is reading at the same time the Bible and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (of "God is dead" fame) and comparing them.

"Something inside of you that tells you something is wrong . . . thatís God," he says.

JOSEPH REEVES

"I had my arm broken while handcuffed behind my back while face down on the floor and Maced so I couldnít see," recounts Joseph Reeves, 25, a narrow-faced man with a wispy, billy-goat beard and delicate tattoos on his pale skin.

Guards broke his arm during an extraction, he says: "They said I wouldnít open my hands, but I was handcuffed and I blacked out. My hands were clenched."

When he came back to the unit from the hospital, he says, the prison staff, suspecting contraband in the cast, cut it off with dull scissors. As a result of the arm not healing properly, he has a piece of loose bone in it, he says.

He, too, is concerned about Michael James: "They constantly beat that kid." Such mentally troubled inmates "would rather die than be here," he says. Lots of SMU inmates have tried to kill themselves, he claims.

He has had mental problems. "Iím impulsive," he admits, a trait that leads him sometimes to resist the extractions. He has been in several mental institutions, he says, and he feels he doesnít get the care for his mental problems that he needs.

He also is upset with what he calls "sexual intimidation" in the form of strip searches and "butt searches."

The guards "at the drop of a hat will Mace you," he says. Like the other prisoners I interviewed, he says of the guards "there are good ones, but they are so outnumbered." The prisoners speak fondly of the "good" guards.

Reeves is serving a five-year term for robbery and gun possession, he says, and much of it so far has been spent in the SMU.

After my visit, he wrote me that he is in a 16-cell "pod" all by himself. He sent me pages from an Amnesty International publication on how isolation, degradation, threats, and "monopolization of perception" constitute torture.

NORMAN KEHLING

Norman Kehling, 47, small, balding, seemingly a calm type, is the former head of the institutionís "long timers" group, he says. He has been in the Maine State Prison since 1989, serving 40 years for arson ó a record sentence, he believes, when no one was hurt in the blaze. He is in the SMU this time for trafficking in heroin, he says. There is "quite a bit" of heroin in the prison, he claims.

Also confirming the other descriptions of the extractions, Kehling tells of what happened to a young prisoner who pulled a sprinkler alarm: "They told him to cuff up. Then they rolled in on him with a team [in his cell]. They put it to him, plowed into him, took him down."

"A lot of people act up" in the Supermax, he says, because "Itís easy to stir these people up," describing the guards as instigators. And part of the problem, he says, is that the guards are scared: "Iíve seen them shaking."

He doesnít believe there is meaningful help for mental-health cases in the Supermax:

"One guy cut his testicle out of his sack . . . They shouldnít be here."

He adds: "This place breeds hate. What theyíre doing obviously isnít working."

 

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Issue Date: November 11 - 17, 2005
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