First visit to solitary confinement

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My first time visiting a solitary confinement unit at Maine State Prison in Warren was like walking into a Federico Fellini movie.

I did not visit alone.

Earlier that August 2013 morning, Frontline producer Elizabeth C. Jones and I met at Moody’s Diner for breakfast, to discuss our upcoming meeting with Maine State Prison Warden Rodney Bouffard. Ms. Jones and I were meeting for the first time, although I had preliminary meetings with her Frontline colleague, Dan Edge.

Maine’s Corrections Department had a relatively new commissioner, a new warden at maximum security Maine State Prison, and first-ever Corrections Communications Director: me. Commissioner Joseph Ponte believed the Maine public should know about the Corrections Department’s people, programs, and facilities.

That’s why I was hired. And Dan Edge was among the first film producers to ask permission to embed a film crew for a couple of weeks inside MSP’s Segregation Unit and let his cameras roll.

Mr. Edge flew to Maine from England to discuss his project with Commissioner Ponte and me. Warden Bouffard and his deputy warden were consulted. The commissioner would not go along with Edge’s idea if Bouffard said no to the documentary.

Based on his low regard for the trustworthiness of news reporters, the deputy warden was dead set against the idea. The deputy’s opposition put Warden Bouffard in a tough spot, which put the commissioner in a tough spot.

To their credit, Commissioner Ponte and Warden Bouffard agreed to meet with a Frontline producer before making their final decision.

Enter Frontline Producer Elizabeth C. Jones, on vacation from England in Maine, who offered to go with me to answer all questions and objections the warden had about making this documentary film.

Breakfast at Moody’s finished, Elizabeth and I drove in separate cars the 10.8 miles to Maine State Prison. After checking in with the corrections officer at the front desk we were escorted to Warden Bouffard’s office, pulled two chairs up to a conference table, and began our Q&A with the Warden.

I know many good people within Maine’s Corrections Department. Warden Rodney Bouffard was among the best. He would seem to most non-corrections people, I think, an unlikely maximum security prison warden. Bouffard was a humanitarian, kind, a prison reform visionary with a great sense of humor. Fully aware he was in charge of the home of “900 of the most dangerous people in Maine,” the warden also seemed aware that, no matter on which side of the prison cell you lived, everyone was a human being.

To our surprise, the warden offered Elizabeth Jones and I a tour of Maine State Prison, ending with a visit to the unit where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. At the time, solitary confinement (or segregation) meant locked alone in a cinder block cell approximately 7’ x 23’ except for one hour per day in a confined outdoor area.

The unit seemed a poorly lit large open area with two tiers of cells along one side. Metal stairs led to the lower tier cells; upper cells were reached by metal staircase and walkway. The air-locking green metal doors each had one square window smaller than an adult face, and a horizontal port through which prisoners received food.

Prisoners were here either because they posed a threat to the general prison population, or because they would be in danger among that population.

All the prisoners were yelling at once, trying to talk to one another through locked cell doors, even between floors. Warden Bouffard’s arrival caused greater yelling and the warden took time to talk with, listen to, each prisoner.

There’s more to tell another day. Frontline produced their documentary. Today Maine Corrections, from what I read, has greatly improved treatment of prisoners kept separate from other prisoners.

That’s an awfully good ending to an awful introduction to a segregation unit.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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