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A Rare Look Inside the Maine State Prison's "Supermax"

An almost-clean version of hell

by Lance Tapley

There was a stain of what looked like blood on the floor of the otherwise shiny-clean, empty Mental Health Unit isolation cell. “It’s Kool-Aid,” said my minder, a deputy warden. He smiled. But, as the saying goes, I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.

The cell faintly stank of shit. Mentally ill prisoners and those made mentally ill by prolonged solitary confinement are driven to cut themselves and to try to throw their feces at guards.

In one of the Administrative Segregation cellblocks – pure solitary confinement – I heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.

The Maine State Prison “supermax,” or Special Management Unit, is an ugly place. Are my photos ugly enough? Trying to fit form to content, I used an old film camera and grainy-image-producing 400-speed, black-and-white film shot usually without a flash under fluorescent lights. There were big limitations. I was not supposed to photograph prisoners, and my tour was rapid. That said, I was, possibly, the first journalist to visit and photograph the supermax – after eight years of writing about it.

Super-harsh supermax (super-maximum-security) prisons and their central feature of solitary confinement became a correctional craze 30 years ago. They became dumping grounds for the mentally ill and others who couldn’t follow prison rules or who simply irritated guards. At least 80,000 human beings are held in them nationwide. Maine opened its supermax in the coastal town of Warren in 1992. Ten years later it built the new state prison around it.

The supermax’s unforgiving conditions are not helpful, to put it mildly, in improving prisoner behavior. The evidence is overwhelming, in fact, that protracted solitary confinement damages or destroys prisoners’ minds. Human rights groups consider it torture. And it costs taxpayers twice as much as “general population” incarceration.

Maine corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has reduced the typical number of prisoners in isolation from close to 100 to 40 or so in a 900-man prison. Of the supermax’s four cellblocks or “pods,” two, of Administrative Segregation, have 50 cells each, and one is now empty. The Mental Health Unit, where solitary confinement has never been total, has two pods of 16 cells each, one for “acute” prisoners, one for “stabilization.” Together they held 17 men the day I was there.

Stays in the supermax also are much shorter now, and there’s a lot less prisoner “cutting up” and fewer brutal cell “extractions” by guards to tie prisoners into the restraint chair. For his reforms, Ponte has deservedly received national attention, helping fuel a still-weak movement to limit solitary confinement.

But the Maine supermax is still there, and it’s still grim. While 40 prisoners may not sound like many, it’s the total, according to one report, that England and Wales, with 56 million inhabitants, keep in isolation – isolation less severe than in American supermaxes.

And the supermax is part of a prison from which I receive constant reports of guard cruelty, inadequate medical care, understaffing, deliberate mixing of predators and the vulnerable, and – currently – turmoil because scores more men are being forced to double-bunk. Corrections says the double-bunking is being done for proper “classification” of prisoners. Critics suspect it’s being done to save money.

It’s hard to uncover the truth of what goes on in prisons. Prisoners are always unhappy, prisons are rumor mills and corrections officials are tight-lipped. But the reports I get are consistent.

I wasn’t supposed to interview prisoners, but in the Mental Health Unit a short, meek-looking prisoner, James Brensinger, handed me a typed essay describing his incessant cutting up (he showed me deep scars on his arms), suicide attempts, hallucinations and the medical staff’s failure to deal with his condition. It ends: “I am begging someone to please hear my pleas and cries.”

In the other part of the unit, seven prisoners, some seemingly heavily doped, watched a TV high on a wall. I asked an alert young man how prisoners occupied themselves there. He silently pointed to the TV. Then, he remarked, referring to the cellblock: “Our mental health unit without mental health.”

Here – to the supermax’s Mental Health Unit – is where Republican Governor Paul LePage and the Democratic legislature recently decided to send violence-prone patients from the state’s chief psychiatric hospital, Riverview, in Augusta. Unconvicted jail prisoners whom the courts have concluded should be examined for their sanity – people presumably innocent until proven guilty – will also be sent to this prison unit. Twenty more cells will be opened.

There’s individual insanity, and there’s social insanity. The writer Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, a “normal” man who sat at his desk and calmly signed papers that sent millions of Jews to their death.

The Maine State Prison’s supermax, with its polished floors only a little stained with blood and, while I was there, with its tranquility only occasionally interrupted by a prisoner’s muffled cries, is, to me, a physical manifestation of the banality of evil. “A clean version of hell,” as a former prison warden described another supermax.

To be more compassionate toward its creators, however – to be less like those who defend this uniquely American form of mass torture – I should discard a word like “evil” and describe the supermax as a manifestation of social insanity, of a sick society.

“It’s just crazy, this whole place,” the young man in the Mental Health Unit told me.

This article was originally published by The Portland Phoenix ( on November 8, 2013; it is reprinted with permission of the author.

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