Maine bill would limit time inmate can be in ad seg

The Maine Civil Liberties Union has recruited ex-prisoner to help spin case

By Dennis Hoey
Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Robert King spent 29 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison.

King, who was freed in 2001, said it was a living hell that he wouldn't wish on anyone, regardless of their crime.

''Solitary confinement is terrifying, especially if you are innocent of the charges that put you there,'' he said during a presentation Wednesday night at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. ''My soul still cries out from all that I witnessed and endured.''

King was invited to speak about his experience by several organizations that are supporting legislation before the Maine Legislature to limit how long an inmate at the Maine State Prison in Warren or the Maine Correctional Center in Windham can be held in an isolation cell.

The bill also would establish an appeals system for any inmate who is confined to a segregation unit in one of those prisons.

The Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee plans a public hearing on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Schatz, D-Blue Hill, at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Room 436 of the State House.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union, which helped bring King to Maine, says that isolating prisoners causes severe psychiatric harm, induces harmful physiological responses such as depression and paranoia, and can cause permanent psychiatric damage.

Denise Lord, associate commissioner for the Maine Department of Corrections, said her department doesn't dispute the medical findings but opposes the legislation because it would create a bureaucracy that defeats the purpose of isolating violent or dangerous inmates.

''We don't use the term solitary confinement because it creates images in people's minds that don't match our practices,'' Lord said.

Lord said that placing inmates in a segregation unit allows prison officials to manage prisoners who have discipline issues, who pose a danger to others, who are at risk of being victimized, or who have demonstrated a propensity toward violence.

King wrote a book, ''From the Bottom of the Heap,'' based on his experience in Louisiana's Angola prison - an 18,000-acre former slave plantation.

During his time there, he became a member of the Black Panthers. He claims his involvement with the organization brought on more severe punishment by prison officials.

In the early 1970s, King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were charged by prison officials with murders that King says they didn't commit.

He was freed after a court found him ''probably innocent,'' but his fellow inmates remain in solitary confinement.

Copyright 2010 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

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