Joseph Ponte: In Maine, “We Rewrote the Segregation Policy”

Joseph Ponte was the Maine Corrections Commissioner for three years before being appointed New York City Correction Commissioner on March 11, 2014.  Ponte was widely lauded for improving Maine state prisons and reducing the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. He spoke with FRONTLINE about the policy changes made in the Maine prisons and they effects they had on prisoners. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 7, 2014.

I want to cast your mind back to when you became commissioner [in Maine]. How and why did you turn your attention to the issue of solitary confinement?

When I arrived, we had what they call a legislative resolve, so that was an attempt in the years prior to get legislation passed on changing the department’s ability to manage segregation, and they wanted to change it.

They couldn’t get the votes to do that, so some of the committee were spending about a year looking at segregation in Maine but left it with a report.

So when I arrived here, we had a report compiled by the legislators on segregation in Maine. So we had an outline, a blueprint to tell us what the problems were, and it wasn’t a governor’s initiative or wasn’t a legislators’ initiative. It was basically a lot of work by a lot of people that was just sitting on the desk.

And when I looked at the report and I went inside these facilities to look at our practice, I felt that the report was pretty compelling, that we needed to do something, that there was work to be done with segregation in Maine.

So that was the motivation. Not because somebody pushed us into it. It was the prior work that was done to say, you’re the problem. Your department needs to look at these things.

You’ve been in corrections for decades. Had you looked at segregation as being problematic before?

No. … I went to a meeting in Chicago and met other directors and went through a week’s worth of training.

But the state of Mississippi had dealt with segregation in much the same way. When they looked at their system and how they did segregation, and in this case [Christopher Epps], the commissioner in Mississippi, decided we need to fix this, and he did.

The work that he had done in Mississippi just made me a believer and say, we can do that in Maine. And we did.

And you see now pockets of other states across the country looking at this issue and saying, we need to do better. And in fact, I think that when you take a serious look at it, this begs for attention.

You said that the report highlighted problems with the use of segregation. What were those problems?

Obviously the length of stay is an issue, and when we talked before about when somebody goes into segregation for a particular rap, they get disciplinary reports while they’re there, and they end up staying for, in some cases, years. There was no way out.

The way our bed management [worked], when somebody went in, we gave up their population bed, so even when they were OK to come out, we didn’t have a place to put them.

There was practices that we were doing in state that made this system problematic, but then once we put them in seg [segregation], we basically did nothing with them. We didn’t treat them. We didn’t do programming. We just kept them in seg and we let them back out. … We were managing the risk but we did nothing to reduce the risk. And that’s kind of the whole change in how you look at the problem.

Somebody’s dangerous for me to take them out of population, we need to put him some place where he’s safe and staff are safe. But what do you do with him once they’re there? That’s the issue. Most states don’t do much.

We had a major problem in mixing mentally ill inmates with people that needed segregation. But this guy needs treatment, or this guy needed separation, so all those things in the report were problematic.

The whole treatment for mentally ill inmates in the state of Maine was pretty limited, so as you see that these things evolve, we start separating out who needs treatment, who needs to be separated, but even in those cases, what do you do with them once you decided that? Those were the biggest challenges.

In theory, one of the main points of segregation is to keep officers, keep other inmates safe. So did you face opposition from your own staff for even looking at this issue?

It’s the way we’ve done business for 42 years, so for our staff here, that’s how we train them. Read the policy. That’s how we train them to do correction practice, that we’re doing something substantially different.

But again, in Maine we have a juvenile blueprint that says this can be successful. We’ve done it. It’s successful. You can go look at [it], and we bet the kids in this case are better because of it. And I think on this side the adults would be better applying a different view and a different way of doing business.

So tell me what changes you made. …

… We rewrote the segregation policy. We went through all those issues that were mentioned in the report and gave solutions to them, like somebody goes to seg and he’s got a release day booked, but we can’t release him cause there’s not a bed. Those are the things that just operationally we had to change within the agency, things that we had to fix in order to fix this. …

We wrote the policy in an open meeting with inmate advocates and ourselves just saying how to best put this practice in place. While we were writing, we had staff here who were already implementing some of the changes.

We never did the changes here in Maine to reduce the number of inmates in seg. We didn’t say, OK, we’ve got 100 inmates in seg, let’s get that to 40. No, we said listen, apply a different way of doing business because it’s a better way, and that’s what will drop the numbers. Not because we said OK, let’s close the cell block. Never had that conversation.

We need to save money — we never had that conversation. We looked at what’s best practice using our juvenile system as an example. Apply that here, and once we did that, the results were a reduced reliance on segregation and reduced numbers in seg and length of stay, all dropped.

What’s an example of someone who would have been put in segregation for a long time two or three years ago who is not put in segregation now?

We got the emergency observation status, which is unusual in most states. So an inmate says something, threatens staff. He may get locked up in the cell block, he may get locked up in segregation. It requires within 72 hours a review. Does that danger still exist? So he was aggressive. We had to get him secure, but did that continue?

So the decision now is, OK, he’s still going to get disciplined, he’s still going to get consequences for behavior, but he doesn’t need to go to seg for that. The segregation, this disciplinary process, is probably two or three weeks long. So if he went to seg and waited, he’d be three weeks in seg before we ever adjudicated discipline.

In this case, he could actually stay in population once he calms down. We assess him and say, OK, he’s calmed down, he’s still going to get disciplinary report, but he may not need to go to seg. He may not go to seg even after the discipline’s adjudicated.

We also added informal sanctions … on an inmate, like restricting him from recreation, or things that inmates look as favorable. The housing officer can then impose sanctions to get the behavior to where we want it. …

We take at the warden’s level here a very serious look at the dangerousness of the inmates, and in most policies it’s defined as a danger to themselves and others, and you can probably make almost anything apply. …

So if somebody gets mad and says, “I’m gonna kick your ass,” and then they cool down after a while, and I can go back and talk to them and say, OK, we understand. So you’re going to get a disciplinary report, but you’re not a threat.

And those are the kinds of decisions that probably a year ago you would have done your time in seg, and if you’d picked up any more disciplinary in seg, you’ve obviously just extended your time there.

So it really is a gatekeeper, … then once we put you there is reviewing them quickly to say, does he need to stay, and to rotate them back out. But that doesn’t happen in most states.

So you have guys now out in general population who perhaps two or three years ago would have been doing fairly long bids in segregation. These are people who have at least a history of violence or have made threats of violence. Has violence in your institutions gone up as a result?

It has not. Initially in the information we looked, at it stayed fairly flat, so we didn’t see an increase or a decrease. With [Maine State Prison warden Rodney] Bouffard — we’ve changed administrations here — so in that change we have a lot of other pieces. Now we’re having programming, adding a lot of pieces to the institution of operation that we think will affect the overall violence here.

I don’t think, as I’ve run other facilities, that we have a high level of violence, but I think we need to do a much better job in reducing the violence, so it didn’t have a big impact one way or the other. So it tells me that what we were doing before wasn’t very effective, and what we did after, which was reduce the number of inmates in seg, didn’t have a bad outcome.

I think a better focus allows us to get inmates who are truly dangerous in segregation, and we need that, but those that aren’t, to get them somewhere else where we can program them and reduce the risk. …

… There are some guys down in B wing right now who are not there cause they’ve attacked someone or assaulted. They’re there because they’ve done something wrong, popped a sprinkler or been caught doing tattoos or something. Why is the 23-hour lockdown the right punishment for someone like that?

One of the things that’s problematic in Maine is that our disciplinary detention is in the same area as our segregation. So there is consequences for behavior. If you do certain things in prison, you get the sanction, and that sanction may be so many days in detention. It’s not segregation, per se, it’s detention.

So you go there for a set number of days, and then you go back to population. That is not long-term segregation. It gets confusing here cause it’s all on the same cell block.

There are guys that for a lot of them it’s repeated behavior. So the guy with the tattoos is a health problem to us. Obviously he’s got contraband, he’s got needles, and that’s not as big as a threat, but he’ll continue to do that, and we’ve tried other things to control it.

Then the sanction may be disciplinary detention, but it’s not long-term seg. [It's] much different, and nobody that I’m aware of in the country has stopped using disciplinary detention as a disciplinary measure. Long-term segregation is much different.

… There are guys who do quite a lot of D-time, as they call it, for non-violent offences. And given that you’ve looked into this and you’ve seen that segregation for an amount of time can be detrimental to an inmate, have you ever considered not using it as a tool of discipline?

… The problem that you have is what alternatives do you have?

I’m developing now housing units to put people in that have more oversight and more control. Right now it’s either open population unit or detention. What we want is have something inbetween.

All right, their behavior is not that dangerous, but it’s problematic. So if we put you in an area where you get more supervision, more oversight, but you’re not in detention, that’s how we’re evolving this and some of the units in population.

You’re right, so you don’t need this, but you need more supervision. And we don’t have options like that today. Here that’s what they’re trying to evolve into, so getting into a program, work on the risk, teach them how to make better decisions and not just locking them up.

Notwithstanding the great and significant changes you’ve made here in Maine, we’ve been filming down in the seg unit, and we’ve seen some pretty horrific things: inmates hurting themselves, quite seriously sometimes, inmates deliberately getting themselves extracted from themselves, inmates smearing fecal matter at themselves or their cells. Is this normal for a seg unit?

… It’s not a normal day when those incidents happen, but they happen, and I think we’re always, now more than ever, looking at the drivers. What are the triggers that are causing these kinds of behaviors? Because it’s not normal. We wouldn’t do that. We look at that as pretty bizarre.

But there’s something going on with a particular inmate. It could be like a challenge with staff. I want to be extracted, so I’m going to do these things. … And we need to get you out because we don’t know what’s going on.

So you try to manage those things, and obviously we don’t want people cutting up — we want to keep people safe — but it is individually driven, and how you manage that in an open unit with the options that we have, it becomes kind of a day by day.

… The triggers are what we need to pay attention to, and I do agree that long-term segregation is not healthy for anybody. Most of our inmates … are not in there for years, most days you can’t say that, so I think we’re doing better.

I think some of those guys that are acting up, they’re there because we want to watch them closer, but we need to look at the behaviors to see what the triggers are and try to respond to those.

Do you think there’s a lack of knowledge in the general public about what a corrections officer faces on a day-to-day basis in a unit like the B wing?

I think clearly there is. It would seem like the simplest solution is well, we’ll just let everybody out. So the difficult part is, how do you manage people in that environment that have a level of mental development [that] may be at the level of mental retardation. Or he may have some mental illness, may have somebody who’s a very violent offender to somebody whose a victim of violence.

It’s so complex that it’s, I wouldn’t say impossible, but for the staff down there and the work they do every day is trying to keep that balance — safety for the staff and the inmates and trying to program inmates to learn the skills so we can get them out of there — in that environment, it’s very difficult.

The levels of self-harm have gone down significantly in this institution, but still amongst adult males, self-harm doesn’t really happen except for men locked in cells for 23 or 24 hours a day. Is that in itself not enough reason to try and find a different way of doing this?

Absolutely. I think the intensive mental health unit will give our people the skills that we don’t currently have here. We have a psychiatrist full time in the mental health unit, and so we’re going to have a much larger number of clinical people that can help us respond to these kinds of issues.

You’re absolutely right. I think we are part of the problem. I think the long-term detention is part of the problem, the sensory [deprivation] of an inmate, and in the cell, all you’ve got is a window. So part of that process that needs to evolve is how do we treat people better?

We’ve looked at other states and other systems and what they were doing. Virginia has done some things. We’ve had staff go to Virginia and look at their system, so as we look at these things, we’re bringing them back here and we’ll put them in place here. Just try to lessen the time that inmates are in segregation but also make sure we’re reducing the risk.

So it’s not just about keeping them locked up and letting them out, but we need to work on the risks for the inmate. … In population they may do [cut themselves] and actually kill themselves, because we don’t have the oversight as we do in seg.

So it’s kind of a balancing system and try to get them where we can keep them safe but also treat them. I think we’re evolving into that. I think we’re getting better at that, but we’re not where we need to be yet.

Often what we’ve seen here is that your staff in B wing, when they see an inmate cut up, their response will be this guy is not mentally ill. He’s doing this to get something. He’s doing this to get what he wants. Are they right?

That really gets into a good clinical look at what they’re doing. Many times inmates do these kinds of behaviors to manipulate situations. It’s what they learned as kids sometimes. They’ve done it almost their entire lives.

But for some of the harm they do to themselves, you and I would look at that and say, you’ve got to be mentally ill to do some of these things. So there’s a level of mental illness. It may not be an access one, access two diagnosis, so you need to kind of figure that and how to manage the offender, cause there is something wrong here.

They are manipulating, but how do you still keep them safe even knowing that? They are still compelled to keep them safe, and that’s the challenge, because it may be mental illness, it may be not. It may be manipulation. But at the end of the day … we need to keep them safe.

… Is it right that an inmate who hurts themselves in segregation is punished with more time in segregation?

No. Those are the kinds of things that we’re trying to move away from, so it doesn’t do any of us any good.

The mere fact that he’s in segregation, he’s doing time, harms himself, and it could be from manipulating the system, but the problem is that giving him more time is not the solution. It’s not the answer to the problem. S we’re trying to move away from that, to get away from writing people up for self-mutilation and look at other treatment options rather than continue segregation.

I think we’re better than what we were, but we still have that mentality. It’s how we’ve done business for probably 200 years, so we’re trying to move away from that. …

… Do you think we’re sort of at the end of an era when it comes to the use of segregation, solitary as some people call it, as a tool of the prison system?

I think it’s going to take a while to evolve, but as we’re a small system in Maine, I think you can see that it’s evolving. We’re moving away from that. We had a waiting list to get into seg two years ago. That’s not the case anymore, so I think we’ve made substantial strides.

Mississippi, it’s just done great work. Colorado has done great work, but that’s maybe five or six states in the country that have really taken this on and shown through their practice that it’s safe, it’s better, we can be more productive.

But it’s not a wave of change. It’s part of the conversation. It’s part of the national directors’ meeting. It’s always on the agenda for conversation and what different states [are] doing. It really hasn’t caught on in the sense of you don’t have 20 states doing the same change, so a lot of them are resistant. A lot of people, like myself, it’s how you evolve in the system. We’ve always done it that way. …

… Is what we’ve seen here in the seg unit common to other systems?

I think what we do in Maine is much different. We look at an inmate coming into seg. One, we try to not put him in seg to start with, so there is a control point to say does he really need to be in seg? And once that decision is made to put somebody in seg, the warden and the administrative staff at this facility are already planning on how do we get them out?

… That process could be slow. It could take a period of time, but it’s not years, it literally is some days. Sometimes days, weeks and months, but it’s not years.

So we plan discharge on the entrance, and so it’s not a matter of time. It’s not like you’ve got to do two months, three months, five months based on your behavior. How do we correct that behavior and get you back safely into an open population?

Those kinds of dialogues happen almost every day here at MSP [Maine State Prison], looking at the inmate and trying to do what’s best for the inmate and what’s safe for the staff, or in a collaborative way happens here daily that typically doesn’t happen anywhere else in the country.

And will inmates spend decades in segregation here in Maine?

No. Average length of stay here has been about 30 to 40 days, which is pretty good nationally. A lot of the bigger states that you hear, it’s measured in years.

What do you define as a long-term seg?

For us a month or two. We’ve had some, maybe one that I can think of, that comes close to a year or just over a year. But that’s one out of 40 or 50 inmates, so it’s very unusual.

I know the changes you made here were not about saving money. Have they cost money? Is it more expensive to do it this way?

In some cases where we are not using cell blocks, it’s obviously cheaper. But it was never about money. I always get asked that question, how much money? You say, well, you know the budget for MSP has been the budget for MSP now for the 3 years I’ve been here. Hadn’t changed it one way or the other. So it really was about doing better work.

It used to be in corrections, probably 10 years ago, the thought was, let’s not make them any worse than they were when they came in. Now there’s enthusiasm we can actually make some good. We can actually improve on the lives of these offenders.

Segregation is the biggest challenge, cause now you get somebody where the system fails, so they haven’t done well in the system as a whole, and now they’re in the most confined part of that system. How do you get them back structured and get them back out?

Before the answer was, we’re just going to keep them locked up and that’s it. Now we believe, I’m confident in Maine, that we can actually get them back out and get them back out safely with the right interventions.

… Isn’t it potentially a great opportunity for you guys, if you had the resources, if you had the staff, to engage with the most difficult inmates rather than bury them?

At the end of the day, 98 percent of our inmates are going to be out there in the community, so what truly makes the community safer is getting these offenders the skills to deal with real life, and interacting with people first in the facility, but eventually they’re going to doing that in the community.

So evolving them to be able to think better, to act better, to act responsibly, to understand the consequences of their behavior, are all things that are teachable, and some of them it takes a bit longer than others, but you’re right. Those are truly success stories.

And we’ve put people out that have the skills to stay out of segregation that probably three or four years ago would have been your next door neighbor and pretty angry and acting out. So those things I think are truly what makes our role in the community here in Maine much more responsible but also much more rewarding, because I think we’re doing real work and not just keeping them safe while they’re locked up.

… Some people will look at what happened in B wing and think you should just let all these guys out, that’s the solution. Just address that for me.

In institutions, we have violent people. We have people who prey on others. We have people who assault staff. So there’s got to be the ability to separate those people out for the good of others.

We have cell blocks with 65 inmates in it. Somebody who’s a very violent inmate or acting out is going to disrupt that cell block. He can make it unsafe for others. Our legal mandate is to protect them as well as our staff, and so part of what we need to do is pull them out of that situation to keep everybody else safe.

So they lose some privileges as a result of going to seg, so to speak. But on the other hand, others have more privileges, cause we’re not locking down. We don’t have units on lockdown because of behavior of a few. And then we get to work with that individual to try to get them back in a better situation than what they were when they left. …

Would you see this prison as a work in progress?

Absolutely, and a lot of the changes you see is stuff that we’ve started a while back. … There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, and we have success stories today we can tell that six months ago would not have been success stories.

I’ve spoken to other correction departments and the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well, and I’ve bought up what’s been happening in Maine, and it’s often written off as a small state. It’s not relevant to us. We couldn’t do what they do. …

I’ve worked all over the country, so there’s some issues that are different. But bottom line, it’s I find inmates to be inmates. I find correctional staff to be correctional staff. And given the right program and the right influences, we can impact inmates in every situation. …

Their numbers are bigger, so how you approach issues or problems are going to be more difficult, but at the end of the day, what you see here is really one-on-one individual behavior, so it’s not a massive change in the culture. We didn’t say, OK, let them all out or lock them all up. We started working with individuals in trying to get the individuals back on track.

Basically I think that the best terminology is that we kind of threw out the rule book. Why do we operate in a sense of the black and white? … Let’s do what’s best for the inmate and safer staff. So it becomes an individual response to the behavior and not a policy decision. That’s the change. And I think that change can happen everywhere. …

Some staff here have said to us that they feel that it’s just another swing of the pendulum, if you like, that we get a bit softer on inmates, then something terrible happens, a murder, and we get a bit tougher on them again, and this is just more of the same.

I think there is probably a swing, but we’re looking at outcomes. You don’t need to be on the side to be more liberal or more conservative. You look at the outcome.

Are we getting better outcomes in the approach we currently use today here at MSP? The answer is yes. I think the inmates are better off, I think the staff are safer, and we got again a good blueprint of Maine on the juvenile system where we did away with all that stuff and we didn’t have any bad outcomes.

So will we have a bad outcome from time to time in a prison? It happens, but you don’t walk away from fundamentally what makes you successful. …

It’s not one-size-fits-all. What we do with this particular inmate is going to be different to what we do with this particular inmate, knowing the inmate, assessing the risk, having a program available for them to fit into is what’s going to keep them safe and us safe.

Why did you let us in? Why did you let the cameras in?

My feeling is whatever’s going on in most of our facilities, the true picture is less problematic than what people envision. …

I think long-term segregation is a problem. When we use the word solitary confinement, it’s not what you have in your mind, so I think an open look at what it is and what we’re doing in real terms is a better picture than what people formulate in their minds, that stuff, how we’re treating people. …

We don’t beat people up. We don’t abuse prisoners. But it’s a difficult environment, and we’re trying to do better. That picture when it’s shown, that’s what it is. You can draw your own conclusions, but you’re seeing. You’re not evolving these things in your mind.

So to me that’s always a better starting point anyway to have some dialogue, so if we don’t like that then how do we make it better? But this is kind of where we’re at right now. To me it’s always better to start like that. …

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