Maine Department of Corrections
The Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) has made significant changes to its restrictive housing practices, focusing on limiting placement in segregation, providing increased access to programming, ensuring due process protections are in place, allowing for time out of cell, and reducing the amount of time individuals are in restrictive housing. These reforms have impacted all of Maine’s secure correctional facilities, including both male and female facilities; however, the greatest impact has been at the Maine State Prison (MSP), Maine’s only maximum security prison, which houses 1,000 close and medium custody male prisoners. As a result of the department’s efforts, the use of restrictive housing has dropped dramatically, from an average of 100 people (4 percent of the prison population at the time) to an average of 24 people (less than 1 percent of the prison population currently) in restrictive housing. Additionally, the time available out of cell has increased, the time in programming has increased, and the average length of stay in restrictive housing has decreased, all while the number of violent incidents have remained stable or decreased.
The MDOC’s reforms have been implemented and continually enhanced to reduce the number of people who are placed in restrictive housing, reduce the amount of time individuals are spending there, provide meaningful programming opportunities while they are housed in restrictive housing, and safely transition prisoners back into general population. The overall conditions in the restrictive housing units have been improved, and the intended outcomes have been met.
The process has involved several phases of reform, each initiated for different reasons. In the early 2000s, advocacy groups, including the ACLU, pressured the Maine DOC to limit the use of segregation for people with serious mental illness. As a response, Maine State Prison opened a secure mental health unit in 2005, where people with severe mental illness should have been provided with higher levels of treatment and supervision. In 2009, advocacy groups again expressed concern for the Department’s practices, including that the Secure Mental Health Unit actually functioned similarly to segregation. In response, failed legislation led to a review of segregation due process procedures and placement procedures.
During this first phase of reform, former Commissioner Joseph Ponte established priorities for reform focused on reducing the number of people in restrictive housing, creating the Administrative Controls Unit, and establishing due process for placement in and removal from restrictive housing. The Department’s policies were changed and staff were trained in the new approach and process. Additionally, MDOC contracted with CorrectCare Solutions in 2012, to improve medical and mental health services available to people who are incarcerated.
During the second phase of reform, Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick established priorities for reform focused on continuing to reduce the number of people in restrictive housing, but also focused on reducing the length of stay in restrictive housing, providing access to mental health services while in restrictive housing, creating a separate Intensive Mental Health Unit for those with serious mental illness, implementing in-cell and in-unit programming opportunities for people in restrictive housing, and overhauling the Administrative Controls Unit. This second phase of reform has been driven by the literature on best practices in restrictive housing and Maine’s own performance measures.
During the first phase of restrictive housing reform (2010-2013), the MDOC made practical changes to the use and operation of its restrictive housing units, including policy changes. These changes included:
- emphasizing alternative sanctions for people in general population;
- limiting the use of administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation, requiring staff to receive administrative approval for transfers to restrictive housing;
- eliminating “high-risk” segregation;
- implementing programming in segregation; and
- establishing individualized plans for returning individuals to general population.
During the second phase of restrictive housing reform (2014-current), the department made significant changes to the structure, location, and operation of its restrictive housing units. This phase of the reform required the most attention and ongoing monitoring, and has produced the greatest results. The changes made during this phase of the reform include:
- establishing a meaningful placement and review process for placement in and removal from restrictive housing, including regular reviews of placements and retentions;
- increasing access to mental health services for people in restrictive housing;
- establishing the Intensive Mental Health Unit to provide people with serious mental illness an appropriate environment for safe housing outside of restrictive housing;
- training staff in effective communication skills (two rounds, one in 2014 at Maine State Prison and one in 2018 across the department);
- implementing in-cell and in-unit programming and work opportunities for people in restrictive housing, including mindfulness activities, risk reduction programming, and paid work opportunities;
- developing a gradual step-down process for people in long-term restrictive housing in which they earn additional time out of cell, more privileges, and reduced restraint requirements when around other prisoners to better transition to general population;
- increasing training and education of administration and staff in restrictive housing best practices;
- creating multi-disciplinary team approaches to individual placements and transitions; and
- training all departmental staff in a trauma-informed, gender-responsive communication model focused on de-escalation and responsiveness.
The first phase of reforms was implemented in Maine between 2010 and 2013. From February 2010 to August 2012, the state’s primary restrictive housing unit at the Maine State Prison had a significant decrease in placements, and the population decreased from 91 people to 46 people during this time. After implementation, the average length of stay also dropped and conditions improved significantly in the restrictive housing unit.
The second phase of reforms was implemented beginning in 2014 and has been ongoing into 2018. These reforms have impacted all the department’s facilities as the meaningful review process has significantly reformed the use of short-term restrictive housing and limited the use of long-term restrictive housing. Additionally, the implementation of appropriate, 21st century communication strategies has resulted in reduced incidents, reduced placements, and better outcomes.
The second phase of reforms has resulted in appropriate placements into the Intensive Mental Health Unit, versus restrictive housing, as well as appropriate placements into restrictive housing. Prisoners are no longer placed in restrictive housing unnecessarily or for lengthy periods of time.
The continued reductions in restrictive housing populations have been dramatic—in May 2017, the Maine State Prison hit an all-time low with just six people housed in any form of restrictive housing. Across the department, these reductions continue, as Maine’s restrictive housing population is less than 1 percent of its overall prison population (male and female). This is far lower than the national average. From 2013 to 2017, the Maine restrictive housing population has decreased 87 percent, and the use of disciplinary segregation has decreased 78 percent. Additionally, the average length of stay in short-term restrictive housing has decreased to approximately 30 days, while the average length of stay in long-term restrictive housing has decreased from an average of 477 days to an average of 254 days. Maine no longer releases prisoners from restrictive housing to the community—each individual is transitioned to general population first.
Most importantly, these reforms have been paralleled by a period of stabilized or decreased incidents across the department, all the while the overall departmental prison population has increased. Staff have begun to understand the importance of the change in practice and the research supporting it, and have responded well to the communication trainings. Administrations at the facilities have bought into the new approach to restrictive housing, making the department’s reform efforts more sustainable long-term.
When considering reforming the approach to restrictive housing, it is critical to have buy-in from the department’s executive team, facility administration, and line staff. Training in the new approach and philosophy, early in the process, is critical. In Maine, we’ve learned the importance of involving line-staff in initiatives, having felt the negative impacts of failing to do this previously. This is the most critical factor to success.
Additionally, the department must be willing to take risks and try new alternatives to restrictive housing. Significant reform cannot be achieved without implementing practices that have not been tried before in the department, which is risky. Being willing to approach people who are incarcerated and opportunities in an incarcerated setting in new ways is a critical factor to successful reform.