Maine Supermax inmates on hunger strike

_By Lance Tapley

At least eight inmates of the Maine State Prison’s solitary-confinement Supermax unit in Warren are on a hunger strike, protesting not being allowed to have radios to listen to.

Recent letters to the Phoenix from two of the protesters said 10 inmates had been on strike since Sunday, May 3. Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said on Wednesday, May 6, that “up to eight prisoners in the Special Management Unit . . . refused meals beginning either Sunday night or Monday morning. At least one prisoner has resumed eating.”

Lord said the prison’s medical staff was monitoring the inmates. She confirmed that the strike was “related to a request for radios in their cells.”

“Most states recognize that it’s a necessity to have a TV or radio to keep sane” in solitary confinement, one of the protesters, Jesse Baum, wrote the Phoenix. “We will not eat any food until we can have a radio, at the least.”

Baum — whose profile describes him as in his late 20s and from Norway, Maine — believes authorities don’t allow radios because some inmates might use their parts “to cut up” — to cut themselves, a common behavior in the 23-hour-a-day lockdown of the Supermax, where many inmates are mentally ill. He called this an unfair “mass punishment” of all Supermax inmates.

He added: “Ask yourself, do you believe that keeping us . . . under these conditions is good for a successful rehabilitation? I am a human being that’s made a couple of mistakes. I didn’t come to prison to do a three-year sentence to lose my sanity.”

Lord did not immediately answer the Phoenix’s questions about why radios were not allowed in the Supermax, what the names were of the striking inmates, whether the strike is disrupting the rest of the prison, or whether the prisoners would be force-fed if their medical condition degenerated to a dangerous state.

In a letter sent by Baum on Monday, he said prison medical staff were weighing the strikers and taking pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. He said a nurse told him that because he was on a hunger strike he wouldn’t be allowed to be treated for medical problems — he mentioned “night sweats, abdominal pain, joint pain, and jaundice” — which he blamed in part on chronic hepatitis C.

He said some prisoners were refusing water and psychotropic medications. In a letter also received by the Phoenix Wednesday, Michael James, another protester, said he’s drinking only a little water and as of Monday had lost four pounds.

James is 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.)

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