PORTLAND — The maximum-security inmate who authorities say snuck out of his cell in the Cumberland County Jail to have sex with a female inmate was transferred Tuesday to the Maine State Prison’s Supermax facility in Warren.
Arien L’Italien, 23, of Biddeford, a federal detainee, was moved to the state’s most secure prison after Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce and U.S. Marshal for Maine Noel March met Tuesday to discuss the incident.
L’Italien is accused of jamming his cell door lock so he could open it later, then crawling along a floor to avoid detection by two corrections officers late Friday night in the maximum-security unit.
He crawled to the maximum-security cell of Karla Wilson, 25, who had sabotaged her cell door’s lock, authorities say. After the two had sex, L’Italien was seen making his way back to his cell at 12:50 a.m. Saturday.
Joyce revealed Tuesday that indicator lights would have shown that L’Italien’s and Wilson’s cell doors were open, but the panel where the lights are displayed is not monitored at night.
“There is an indicator light that is seen. Somebody pays special attention to it 16 hours a day,” Joyce said. “For the other eight, when everybody is supposed to be locked down and sleeping … we don’t have that extra set of eyes.”
An indicator also could have been visible in the jail’s master control room, where officers control virtually all movement through the jail’s secure doors and take some responsibilities for maximum security after hours.
However, the officers would have seen the symbol indicating an open cell door only if they called up the video panel showing the maximum-security unit.
Joyce said officials are investigating to determine exactly which systems failed, what changes are needed and whether any discipline is warranted.
One policy that may have been ignored was the extent to which corrections officers check on inmates during rounds every 15 minutes.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a prison security consultant based in California, said officers who do regular checks should see “flesh and movement” — flesh to make sure the inmate is there, and movement to make sure the inmate is not in medical distress.
Such a check would have alerted officers to L’Italien’s absence because he had stuffed the bedding on his bunk to make it look like he was still there.
Joyce said his officers are instructed to look for breathing and flesh.
Schwartz, who said he has no direct knowledge of the Maine incident, was not surprised that inmates found a way to thwart cell door locks.
“There are many older facilities where inmates can, with varying degrees of ease, spring their own locks and let themselves out of their cells,” he said.
The Cumberland County Jail, built 18 years ago, is considered modern, so Schwartz said its locks shouldn’t be easy to overcome.
“If it’s bad enough, you have to order new locks, and that’s very expensive,” he said. “Fixing the locking mechanism is going to be very cheap compared to what the lawsuit would cost you if an inmate gets out and kills another inmate.”
Joyce said that soon after he was elected sheriff, he questioned why the day-room doors in the maximum-security unit were propped open at night, and was told it was because the metallic clang of the locking mechanism would wake inmates every 15 minutes when officers made their rounds.
After getting out of his cell Friday night, L’Italien went through two open day-room doors to get to Wilson’s cell.
Schwartz said that leaving doors open defeats the security systems built into a correctional facility.
“That’s a staffing issue,” he said, “and it’s particularly serious because the two things jails care most about are protection of the community and staff safety, and what they’re doing endangers those.”
Schwartz said inmates would soon learn to sleep through the disruption of the door locks.
But Will Russell, a former Cumberland County corrections officer who now is the business agent for the union representing the officers, said the noise is disruptive and makes it difficult to manage inmates.
“The 15-minute checks were driving them nuts,” Russell said. “They’re being deprived of sleep and getting agitated, and that’s not the right environment.”
No matter how secure a facility is, Russell said, inmates working around the clock to beat the system will breach security.
“It’s incumbent on the sheriff, jail administrator and the union to work together to try to solve the problem so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
The county jail’s maximum-security unit is managed by two corrections officers at night. During the day, another layer of security, called subcontrol, is staffed by an officer who overlooks the unit, manages when doors are opened and closed, and monitors the movement of inmates.
That subcontrol position is not staffed at night, when there is almost no movement in the unit, Joyce said.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, president of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said inmates have popped locks in his jail, though not for several years. He said he anticipates that other jail officials will draw on Cumberland County’s experience to improve their practices.
“I feel for Sheriff Joyce,” Ross said. “I’m sure every sheriff and jail administrator is going to be working to make sure this doesn’t happen to them.”
Joyce already has made changes.
The watch station in maximum security has been moved to give officers a better view of the area where L’Italien crawled without being noticed. The day room doors are now closed and locked even at night, unlocked only when officers make their rounds every 15 minutes.
L’Italien had tried to get into Wilson’s cell two days earlier, but she was unable to open her cell door. Joyce said investigators have checked many hours of video and have seen no indication that L’Italien made other forays.
Joyce declined to allow Wilson to be interviewed, saying investigators want to speak with her again at length.
L’Italien refused to talk to investigators, but Joyce hopes he will change his mind.
“I’d like for us to have the opportunity to talk to him. I really want to find out what happened, where the breakdown is, so we can fix it,” Joyce said.
The Cumberland County Jail holds about 400 inmates, in minimum-, medium- and maximum-security housing areas, as well as a medical unit and a 72-hour classification and transition area for new inmates.
As a federal detainee, L’Italien is the responsibility of U.S. Marshal for Maine Noel March. L’Italien is charged with trying to kill deputy marshals during a shootout in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood when he was arrested in January.
The marshals were looking for L’Italien because he allegedly stabbed a man in the neck in Biddeford.
Joyce described L’Italien as a sociopath.
“If he wants to play games, he can go up there, where life is not so rosy,” he said of the Supermax.
Joyce noted that inmates in the Supermax facility take their recreation wearing handcuffs and ankle shackles.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org