Auburn, Bangor, Portland, Rockland, York and National Religious Leaders

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
February 23, 2010 12:00 am

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Announce Support for LD 1611: “An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment of Special Management Unit Prisoners”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Today a coalition of local (Auburn, Bangor, Portland, Rockland, Old Orchard Beach) and national religious leaders will voice their support for LD 1611, “An Act to Ensure Humane Treatment of Special Management Unit Prisoners.” The bill, sponsored by Representative Jim Schatz (D-Blue Hill) seeks to limit the amount of time prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement and put in place a review process to ensure that prisoners with mental illness are not kept in the special management unit.

“U.S. laws define torture as any act that intentionally causes severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental. Experts in psychiatry tell us that segregation used in Maine prisons amounts to torture,” said the Reverend Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “As people of faith and conscience, we have an obligation to put an end to the harm done by the use of segregation in Maine prisons– harm done to prisoners, guards and the general population once prisoners are released.”

Those voicing support at a press conference and meeting in Augusta with key legislative leaders include the Reverend Richard Killmer, Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a resident of Yarmouth; the Reverend Richard Snyder, Academic Dean of Bangor Theological Seminary and founder and Chair of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast; the Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh of Portland; Eric Smith, Associate Director of the Maine Council of Churches; and Mark Mutty, Director of Public Affairs for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Other religious leaders from Brewer, Auburn, Rockland, and Old Orchard will also attend to demonstrate support.

At the public hearing for LD 1611, national medical experts and Maine psychiatrists and psychologists spoke to the detrimental effect prolonged isolation has on an inmate, which can result in mental illness where none previously existed and exacerbates existing mental illness. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a DC-based religious coalition committed to ending the practice of US-sponsored torture, defines solitary confinement, or what the Maine Department of Corrections calls segregation, as torture. Religious leaders spoke to the moral obligation we have to put an end to the use of torture in Maine prisons.

“While there are some persons who must be incapacitated in order to prevent them from doing harm, even in those cases our primary focus should be on their healing and rehabilitation,” said Revered Dick Snyder of the Bangor Theological Seminary. “Solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are forms of punishment that not only do not contribute to healing and rehabilitation but rather multiply the harm already done.”

Moved by an article published by Dr. Atul Gawande in the New Yorker titled “Hellhole”, last spring Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld wrote an op-ed for the Portland Press Herald expressing his support for a ban on solitary confinement. He also submitted written testimony at the public hearing for LD 1611 on February 17th.

“I am compelled to speak out for prisoners’ welfare because of the words of the Hebrew Bible,” said Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld. “The Bible states that man was created in the image of God, in Hebrew – b’tzelem Elohim. These words teach us that a spark of goodness lies within the soul of every human being. The lesson of the spark of the soul teaches us that we must not give up hope on human beings and cast them away into a dark hole of obscurity.”

The work session for LD 1611 is scheduled for Friday, February 26th at 1pm before the Criminal Justice Committee.

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