Maine Department of Corrections
The Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) has made significant changes to its restrictive housing practices, focusing on limiting placement in segregation environments, providing increased access to programming, ensuring accountability and due process protections are in place, allowing for increased and enhanced time out of cell, and reducing the amount of time individuals are in restrictive housing. The Department also reevaluated treatment and housing options for people with mental illness or those in need of mental health services, created an incentive system for behavior, and ultimately transformed conditions of confinement within their highly restrictive living areas. In 2019 and 2020, the Department revised and finalized all new restrictive housing policies to adopt these new practices. These reforms have impacted all of Maine’s secure correctional facilities, including both male and female facilities; however, the most significant impact has been at the Maine State Prison (MSP), Maine’s only maximum-security prison, which houses over 900 close and medium custody men.
In 2014, the Maine Department of Corrections undertook the challenge of overhauling the use of restrictive housing at MSP. Before their efforts, the Department’s restrictive housing population was typically 45-50 people, housed in MSP’s Special Management Unit (SMU). As of February 2017, the Department reported an all-time low in the SMU population—with only seven incarcerated people living in the unit. These new practices have been sustained, Department-wide, and have resulted in an average of 1.5% of the Department’s population being in restrictive housing.
The MDOC’s reforms have been implemented and continually enhanced to reduce the number of people placed in restrictive housing, reduce the amount of time individuals are spending there, provide meaningful programming opportunities and evidence-based interventions while they are housed there, and safely transition prisoners back into the general population. The overall conditions in the restrictive housing units have improved, and the Department met the intended outcomes. The Department’s ongoing commitment is to stay away from the long-term isolation of incarcerated people, and these reforms have resulted in average restrictive housing stays dropping below 60 days.
The process has involved several phases of reform, each initiated for different reasons. In the early 2000s, advocacy groups, including the ACLU, pressured the Maine DOC to limit the use of segregation for people with serious mental illness. As a response, Maine State Prison opened a secure mental health unit in 2005, where people with severe mental illness should have been provided with higher levels of treatment and supervision. In 2009, advocacy groups again expressed concern for the Department’s practices, including that the Secure Mental Health Unit actually functioned similarly to segregation. In response, failed legislation led to a review of segregation due process procedures and placement procedures.
During this first phase of reform, former Commissioner Joseph Ponte established priorities for reform focused on reducing the number of people in restrictive housing, creating the Administrative Controls Unit (an alternative unit for people in restrictive housing who pose a repeated or serious threat to others safety and the facility’s security), and establishing due process for placement in and removal from restrictive housing. The Department’s policies were changed and staff were trained in the new approach and process. Additionally, MDOC contracted with CorrectCare Solutions (now Wellpath) in 2012 to improve medical and mental health services available to people who are incarcerated.
During the second phase of reform, Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick established priorities for reform focused on continuing to reduce the number of people in restrictive housing, but also focused on reducing the length of stay in restrictive housing, providing access to mental health services while in restrictive housing, creating a separate Intensive Mental Health Unit for those with serious mental illness, implementing in-cell and in-unit programming opportunities for people in restrictive housing, and overhauling the Administrative Controls Unit as a long-term programming unit rather than restrictive housing unit. This second phase of reform has been driven by the literature on best practices in restrictive housing and Maine’s own performance measures. This second phase has informally transitioned into a third phase, focused on enhancing programs and interventions available in the Administrative Controls Unit and ensuring fidelity to the restrictive housing policies and practices now in place.
During the first phase of restrictive housing reform (2010-2013), the MDOC made policy and practical changes to the use and operation of its restrictive housing units. These changes included:
- emphasizing alternative sanctions for misbehavior by people in the general population;
- limiting the use of administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation, by requiring staff to receive administrative approval for transfers to restrictive housing;
- eliminating “high-risk” segregation—a practice that automatically placed people in restrictive housing based on previous offense or infraction history;
- implementing programming in segregation; and
- establishing individualized plans for returning individuals to the general population.
During the second (and third) phase of restrictive housing reform (2014-present), the Department made significant changes to the structure, location, and operation of its restrictive housing units. This phase of the reform required the most attention and ongoing monitoring and has produced the most significant results. The changes made during this phase of the reform include:
- establishing a meaningful placement and review process for placement in and removal from restrictive housing—that allows incarcerated people to advocate for their release from restrictive housing—including reviews every seven days for placements less than 60 days, and every 30 days for placements longer than 60 days ;
- increasing access to mental health services for people in restrictive housing, with medical and mental health services made available daily;
- establishing the Intensive Mental Health Unit to provide people with serious mental illness an appropriate housing environment as an alternative to restrictive housing, with individualized programming and treatment to decrease harmful behavior;
- effective communication skills training for staff (two rounds, one in 2014 at Maine State Prison and one in 2018 across the Department) and trauma-informed de-escalation and communication training for staff (2018-current);
- implementing in-cell and in-unit programming, interventions and work opportunities for people in restrictive housing, including mindfulness activities, risk reduction programming, vocational skill-building, and paid work opportunities;
- developing a gradual step-down process to other less restrictive units and an incentive level system for people in long-term programming housing (in the ACU) in which they earn additional time out of their cell, more privileges, and reduced restraint requirements when around other prisoners, to better transition them to the general population;
- increasing training and education of administration and staff in restrictive housing best practices;
- creating multi-disciplinary team approaches that include security staff and health care staff in individual placements and transitions; and
- training all departmental staff in a trauma-informed, gender-responsive communication model focused on de-escalation and responsiveness.
- Implementing the use of an objective assessment to gauge risks posed and necessary areas for intervention for those housed in the ACU.
The first phase of reforms was implemented in Maine between 2010 and 2013. From February 2010 to August 2012, the state’s primary restrictive housing unit at the Maine State Prison had a significant decrease in placements, and the population decreased from 91 people to 46 people during this time. After implementation of reforms, the average length of stay also dropped and conditions improved significantly in the restrictive housing unit.
The second phase of reforms was implemented beginning in 2014 and has been ongoing. The most recent third phase informally began when the Department’s policies were overhauled in 2019 and 2020. These reforms have impacted all the Department’s facilities as the meaningful review process has significantly reformed the use of short-term restrictive housing and limited the use of long-term restrictive housing. Additionally, the implementation of appropriate, 21st-century communication strategies has resulted in reduced incidents, reduced restrictive housing placements, and better outcomes.
The continued reductions in restrictive housing populations have been dramatic—in May 2017, the Maine State Prison hit an all-time low with just six people housed in any form of restrictive housing—from upwards of 100 incarcerated people in 2011 and approximately 50 people in 2015. Across the Department, these reductions continue, as Maine’s restrictive housing population is approximately 1.5 percent of its overall prison population (male and female)—far lower than the national average. From 2013 to 2017, the Maine restrictive housing population has decreased by 87 percent, and the use of disciplinary segregation has declined by 78 percent.
Additionally, the average length of stay in short-term restrictive housing has reduced to approximately 30 days, while the average length of stay in long-term programming housing (ACU) has decreased by almost 50 percent, from an average of 477 days to an average of 254 days.
In addition, Maine no longer releases incarcerated people from restrictive housing to the community—each individual is transitioned to the general prison population first.
Most importantly, these reforms have been paralleled by a period of stabilized or decreased incidents across the Department—despite the fact that all the while, the overall departmental prison population had increased (until 2019, at which time the population has sharply decreased to its lowest point in more than 5 years). And from 2012 to 2016, incidences of self-harm at the Maine State Prison also decreased by nearly 80 percent. Department staff have begun to understand the importance of the changes in practice and the research supporting it and have responded well to the communication training. Administrations at the facilities have bought into the new approach to restrictive housing, making the Department’s reform efforts more sustainable long-term.
When considering reforming the approach to restrictive housing, it is critical to have buy-in from the Department’s executive team, facility administration, and line staff. Training in the new approach and philosophy, early in the process, is critical. MDOC learned the importance of involving line-staff in initiatives, having felt the negative impacts of failing to do this previously. This is the most critical factor for success.
Additionally, a department must be willing to take risks and try new alternatives to restrictive housing. Significant reform cannot be achieved without implementing practices that have not been tried before in the Department, which is risky. Being willing to approach people who are incarcerated and opportunities in an incarcerated setting in new ways is a critical factor to successful reform.
After extensive reforms over nearly a decade, the MDOC now uses restrictive housing as a last resort for those who continue to pose security risks to other incarcerated people and staff. The Department continued with reforms even in the face of leadership changes and a violent incident within a facility. The transformation of restrictive housing within the Maine DOC required a multi-disciplinary approach and consistent collaboration between security staff, mental health staff, and other health practitioners. This collaboration ensured that incarcerated people receive the appropriate treatment and programming and live in the least restrictive housing needed for the safety of the facility.