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Articles by Lance Tapley

“Natural Causes Killed Victor: A Death in Solitary,” a folk opera by George Swanson (DVD, 55 minutes)

Written by George Swanson, a folksinger and Episcopal priest, this unusual folk opera tells how Victor Valdez, a sickly, working-class immigrant from the Dominican Republic, died in 2009 in solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison – and how the causes of his death were covered up.

The state prosecutor ...

Bonnie Kerness: Pioneer in the Struggle Against Solitary Confinement

Bonnie Kerness: Pioneer in the Struggle Against Solitary Confinement

by Lance Tapley

In 1986, Ojore Lutalo, a black revolutionary in Trenton State Prison – now the New Jersey State Prison – wrote to Bonnie Kerness’ American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) office in Newark. His letter described the extreme isolation and ...

No Death Penalty for Maine Prisoner

In 2008, within a supposedly high-security prison in the giant federal correctional complex in Florence, Colorado, Gary Watland, a “boarder” from Maine, murdered another prisoner, white supremacist Mark Baker.

After five and a half years – and after, probably, millions in taxpayer-paid legal costs, including for his defense team – ...

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 ...

Prison Reforms Under Maine’s New DOC Commissioner

Several weeks after firing Maine State Prison warden Patricia Barnhart on January 10, 2013, and two years after taking over the Department of Corrections (DOC), Commissioner Joseph Ponte appears determined to continue – and ramp up – his forceful program of reform.

In an interview at the DOC’s Augusta headquarters, the ...

Solitary Confinement: Bad for Chimps, Okay for Humans?

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins is a key cosponsor of legislation that, among other provisions, would outlaw psychologically damaging solitary confinement for more than 500 chimpanzees caged for research in federally supported laboratories. In July 2012 the bill bipartisanly passed the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee on its way ...

Reform Comes to Maine Supermax: New commissioner cuts population by more than half; prisoner rights advocates help in the reform

Less than three months into his job, Maine’s new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has begun to dramatically reform the Maine State Prison’s long-troubled solitary confinement “supermax” unit.

He has cut its population by more than half.

He has stopped – so far, after several weeks under his new rules ...

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson, Metropolitan Books/Holt, 484 pp (October 2010), $20.00 paperback

Book Review by Lance Tapley

Why did middle-class liberals, historically in the forefront of compassionate social reform, allow, with nary a peep, the construction of our prison colossus? A new book, Texas Tough, by Robert Perkinson, helps explain why liberals not only went along with this right-wing, racist project – they ...

Maine Governor Rakes in Private Prison Money, Shows Appreciation

In Maine’s last gubernatorial campaign, the controversial Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator, spent $25,000 on behalf of Republican candidate Paul LePage, now Maine’s newly-elected governor. The money was given to the Republican Governors Association’s Maine political action committee, which spent heavily on LePage. No other Maine gubernatorial candidate benefited from CCA money, campaign-finance reports reveal.

Although his transition office denied a link with the contribution, LePage met in Augusta with CCA representatives weeks before he became governor. The meeting breathed new life into the town of Milo’s effort to lure CCA into building a giant prison in that remote, impoverished Piscataquis County community.

Milo officials also met with LePage. The town manager, Jeff Gahagan, said CCA officials have talked about a prison housing 2,000 to 2,400 prisoners with 200 to 300 employees. If true, that would be an extraordinarily small number of staff for such a large number of prisoners. The Maine State Prison has just over 400 workers – most of them guards – to deal with just over 900 prisoners. LePage also is looking into boarding Maine prisoners in CCA prisons out of state.

That possibility ...

Mass Torture in America: Notes from the Supermax Prisons

“Exterminate all the brutes!”
– Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

“They beat the shit out of you,” said Mike James, hunched near the smeared plexiglass separating us. He was talking about the cell “extractions” he’d endured at the hands of the supermax-unit guards at the Maine State Prison.

“They push ...