Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prison Watch: Putting an end to the hunger strike

Published in the Portland Phoenix; co-written with Lance Tapley

Maine State Prison officials ended a hunger strike involving at least 10 inmates of the solitary-confinement Supermax unit in Warren by threatening to withhold the strikers’ psychotropic medications, according to allegations by an inmate who participated in the strike.

Eight inmates began striking on Sunday, May 3, demanding access to televisions or radios to help relieve the isolation of 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement. (Inmates in Maine, and in most other states, are not sentenced to solitary confinement by a judge, but rather are assigned there by prison staff, often for breaking even minor prison rules — a common practice despite the fact that many inmates suffer from mental illnesses that are not properly treated in prison and make it hard for them to follow rules.)

“Most states recognize that it’s a necessity to have a TV or radio to keep sane” in solitary, one of the protesters, Jesse Baum, wrote the Portland Phoenix in a letter dated the day the strike began. (Read an online report posted during the early days of the strike at

One inmate dropped out of the strike early last week, and two more had dropped out by May 8, though Associate Corrections Commissioner Denise Lord said then that two more prisoners had joined the protest.

Lord says the inmates did not receive radios, but voluntarily resumed eating over the weekend (she did not know the exact time it the strike ended, but said all were eating by the morning of May 11). According to Lord, prison medical and mental-health staff checked the striking inmates daily, though she would not say what they found, or whether inmates received any treatment, citing medical-privacy regulations.

In a May 7 letter to the Phoenix, Baum wrote that the prison’s medical staff were not treating the health problems he and other inmates had, and were planning on withholding medication for their various mental illnesses, such as “psychosis, paranoia, panic attacks, ADHD, bipolar, depression.” And in a May 10 letter, he said Acting Deputy Warden Dwight Fowles and prison mental-health workers “told inmates they were not to get meds while on hunger strike.”

Initially, Lord disputed those statements, saying “We would never refuse medication,” though adding that inmates can refuse to take it. But upon further questioning, Lord admitted that medical staff might have talked about withholding medications if it was “medically deemed necessary.” (She offered no examples, but agreed with a Phoenix suggestion that some of the medicine might have carried recommendations that it be taken with food.)

“Going on a hunger strike is a personal decision,” Lord said, saying that withholding medication might have been “a consequence” of that, and saying medical and mental-health staff would have given inmates “full understanding” of that possibility.

Ultimately, though, Lord said, “I’m not sure if medication was stopped. I really don’t know.”

Baum had previously said he thought the prison banned Supermax inmates from having radios for fear they would use the radio parts to harm themselves. Lord seemed to agree, saying Supermax inmates are restricted from having very much “personal property” (a designation that includes TVs, radios, electronic game systems, books, magazines, and photographs) in their cells, “primarily for safety and security reasons.”

Several of the inmates suffer from serious mental illness, Baum wrote to the Phoenix, identifying one hunger striker as Michael James, a severely mentally ill man whose incarceration at the prison has long been controversial. Robin Dearborn, his mother, describes the part of the Supermax where he is held as a “dungeon.” (For more on James, see “Punish the Mentally Ill,” by Lance Tapley, April 13, 2007.)

The last Supermax mass hunger strike, which lasted for several days, occurred in 2006 to protest the treatment of Ryan Rideout, a mentally-ill man who had hanged himself in his cell. (See “State Sued Over Inmate’s Death,” by Lance Tapley, March 5, 2008.)

Though the strike has ended, the Black Bird Legal Collective and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition will hold a rally at noon on Saturday, May 16, outside the prison, at 807 Cushing Road, Warren, to support the inmates and to demand “humane treatment of prisoners and an end to long term isolation and other forms of torture in Maine prisons.”