PORTLAND – Maine’s top jail inspector said Wednesday that the security breakdown that allowed a Cumberland County Jail inmate to sneak out of his maximum-security cell to have sex with a female inmate violated at least one mandatory state standard — and possibly more.
Ralph Nichols, director of correctional inspections for the Maine Department of Corrections, identified several key security concerns in an interview Wednesday:
• The jail’s staff failed to lock doors to the day rooms of the maximum-security areas for both male and female inmates. Nichols said those “perimeter doors” are supposed to be locked.
• Some windows in the female inmates’ day room face out into the housing unit, allowing male inmates to see inside. Nichols said state standards call for female and male inmates to be separated by “sight and sound,” meaning they should not be able to see each other or speak with each other.
• Although it is not required by state standards, Nichols also said jail guards should manually check cell doors when making their rounds, to make sure the doors are latched. If guards had done that Friday night at the county jail, they could have detected that the locks on the two inmates’ cells had been jimmied.
Those and other security breakdowns enabled Arien L’Italien, 23, of Biddeford to sneak into the cell of Karla Wilson, 25, of Portland. The two had sex around midnight Saturday.
L’Italien was caught as he crawled back toward his cell, across a second-floor stair landing that separates the day rooms for men and women. Corrections officers at a station on the first floor saw L’Italien’s foot above the landing.
Nichols said jails must meet all of the mandatory state standards and 90 percent of the standards that are classified as “essential.” The Department of Corrections does not impose sanctions for violations, but jails that don’t meet standards must develop plans to address the deficiencies and have them approved by the state’s corrections commissioner.
If deficiencies persist or the plan is inadequate, the commissioner can restrict or modify a jail’s operations or even close the jail.
Jails get one primary inspection and three spot inspections every two years. The Cumberland County Jail is nationally accredited and has historically scored high on its state inspections, Nichols said.
Jail officials say they already have taken steps to improve security and are continuing to investigate how the incident occurred. They have acknowledged that the breach raised serious security and safety concerns, and that corrections officers did not pay attention to security details.
However, one jail official questioned Wednesday whether the issues identified by Nichols were necessarily violations of state standards.
Capt. Steve Butts, head of operations for the jail, noted that the standard for keeping doors locked applies to: “All security perimeter entrances, control center doors, and housing unit doors …”
The unlocked day room doors through which L’Italien passed to reach Wilson’s cell do not technically meet that definition, Butts said.
The day room doors were left unlocked, according to jail officials, so that inmates would not be awakened by the noise of the locking mechanism opening and shutting every 15 minutes when officers made their rounds through the unit.
Nichols was not convinced by that explanation.
“We’re talking about a maximum-security area,” he said. “I understand the issue about noise, but the real question is, do you give up the security?”
Butts said the jail’s design makes it difficult to prevent male and female inmates from seeing or hearing each other. The windows of the day room door into the women’s area have been covered, he said, so the men in the pod across the landing — where L’Italien was held — cannot see in.
Butts said that the way L’Italien and Wilson jimmied the locks, the doors would have seemed secure until the inmate worked the bolts open. Even then, a control panel would not have shown that the doors were open, except possibly when the inmate was leaving or returning to the cell.
It’s unclear whether the jail will have to respond to a federal law that requires reporting of the circumstances in which a sexual act occurs.
The law was designed to reduce the incidence of prison rape, but it would appear not to apply in this case because the sex was consensual, Butts said.
L’Italien was transferred after the incident to the Maine State Prison in Warren, where the state operates a high-security, “Supermax” unit.
L’Italien was being held on federal charges of attempted murder. He was arrested in January after trading gunfire with the U.S. Marshals Violent Offender Task Force outside a church in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood.
The U.S. marshal for the District of Maine, Noel March, said Wednesday that the decision to move L’Italien implied no dissatisfaction with the Cumberland County Jail’s security procedures.
“I have full confidence in Sheriff (Kevin) Joyce’s conscientious attention to the care, custody and control of the inmates and detainees housed in the Cumberland County Jail,” March said. “I trust Sheriff Joyce. I do not trust Mr. L’Italien. Therefore, Sheriff Joyce and I agreed to transfer Mr. L’Italien to the most restrictive confinement available in the state.”
March said he still has 53 federal detainees in the county jail.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: