Frontline Documentary Methodically Examines Solitary Reform In Maine State Prison
“You lose all feeling. You become immune to everything,” says Sam Caison, a prisoner who has been in and out of solitary confinement. “You’re not the same after spending so much time by yourself in those conditions. I don’t care who you are, you don’t come out the same person.”
Caison was in a solitary confinement unit in Maine State Prison for 11 months before he was released to his home. He tried to tell his mother he did not want anyone around.
“I got home, there was five people there, and I felt like there was 5,000 people there. And ultimately, for my first couple of months, I locked myself in my camper until my mom and everybody tried to explain to me I’m not in prison. I shouldn’t live like that!”
Caison chokes up as he tells this story. He ultimately tried to force himself to live in segregation because he did not know what to do. He went from the “most restrictive place” he had ever been to “no restrictions at all.” The damage eventually led to Caison committing another violent crime, and he was back in jail.
Prior to solitary confinement at Maine State Prison, Caison was in solitary when he was 16 years-old and serving a sentence at a juvenile facility.
More than thirty states have pursued some kind of reform of their policies for solitary confinement. PBS FRONTLINE’s “Last Days Of Solitary” is a two-hour documentary on the state of Maine and its progress in reducing the number of prisoners in “special management units” at the Maine State Prison.
It was filmed from 2013 to 2016. Divided into three parts, the documentary vividly captures how prisoners in solitary confinement deteriorate rapidly. It shows the self-mutilation that takes place as prisoners cut themselves to enjoy brief moments of control and win attention from prison officers.
Multiple individuals are followed as they grapple with their placement in solitary. The film tracks what happens to these prisoners as they move in and out solitary, act up to gain attention, leave prison only to return months or weeks later, etc.
Each of the prisoners profiled are white, which may be unusual to those who know solitary confinement disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic prisoners. That is not because there are no black or Hispanic prisoners in the Maine State Prison.
Some of the prisoners featured receive the opportunity to go through new treatment programming or live in a “structural living unit for inmates transitioning out of solitary.”
In that sense, the documentary is more of a solutions-based production. It is less concerned with spending an inordinate time showing the impact of solitary on individuals. Perhaps, that is because the impacts are well-known at this time. What is more unclear is what government reform policies work and don’t work.
Gordon Perry, one of the more violent prisoners in the facility, describes Maine State Prison’s solitary confinement units as an “insane asylum.”
“I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen this tier filled with blood from these guys cutting their arms and their necks and their balls, cutting their ball sacks out, all types of crazy— craziness and— and that’s because they’re stuck in here with nothing to do,” Perry adds.
“You don’t have a strong mind, this place can break you quick. A lot of guys, they don’t even have reasons why, they just snap out. That’s what this place does to you. It makes you mean, makes you violent, and it fucks a lot of people’s heads up. This is solitary confinement.”
In 2013, Rodney Bouffard took over as the new warden of Maine State Prison. He believed solitary confinement was overused. Putting prisoners “in confinement and forgetting about them is essentially gonna make them worse. There’s no question in my mind,” Bouffard contends.
Yet, Bouffard is not in favor of wholly abolishing solitary confinement in the state. He still feels it has its uses, even if it is a source of much of the deterioration of the mental health of prisoners.
One of the best questions posed by FRONTLINE producer Dan Edge relates to Adam Brulotte, whose condition worsens the more he is in solitary confinement. “Was segregation the right place for a person like Adam?” Edge asks Warden Bouffard.
“Well, you just defined why we don’t like to use segregation. But sometimes, it’s necessary. Mr. Brulotte was engaged in some very, very serious behavior while he was in general population, so without a doubt, it was the right place for him,” Bouffard answers.
“Did he spend too long in seg?” Edge asks in a follow-up question.
Bouffard replies, “That’s a real hard question to answer. There’s a lot of gray area in some of the decisions that we make. There’s no exact science to any one of these guys.”
“You have to try to figure them out as we go along. But ultimately, when we’re moving him back into the general population, you know, we have to be certain that the staff are going to be safe, that the other inmates are going to be safe, and that he’s going to be safe.”
It is a boilerplate response that overlooks the science of what is happening to prisoners in solitary and allows the prison to take minimal responsibility for what unfolds.
Tragedies take place, like stabbings and brutal assaults. Inmates given second chances wind up back in solitary.
It is definitely a dilemma, but what the staff never really recognize during any of the scenes is that it is twisted to tell a prisoner they have to behave and get better if they want to be moved out of solitary when those conditions are a large part of the reason for misbehavior. In other words, to an extent, they cannot help themselves and could potentially if they weren’t in such harsh conditions.
Despite isolated incidents, the officials managing the facility do show the fortitude to push onward. They make tremendous strides in reducing the population. They reduce violence in the prison.
The access given to FRONTLINE producers enables the crew to create a methodical examination of how reform can progress. It stands as an example for the other 20 or fewer states that still cling to a policy that is scientifically proven to do great damage to mental health and increase recidivism substantially.
*To find out when “Last Days of Solitary” airs, view the listing for your local station here.