PORTLAND — Officials at the Cumberland County Jail said Friday that the incident two weeks ago when an inmate sneaked out of his cell to have sex with a woman was not the first time a lock on a maximum security cell had been breached.

A review of jail records prompted by a request from The Portland Press Herald found that in 2002 inmates got out of their maximum security cells on two occasions and jammed a cell-door lock open on another.

There is no record of any contact between the inmates who jammed their locks and other inmates, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Friday.

The jail is scrutinizing its security procedures after Arien L’Italien jammed open the lock on his maximum security cell late March 9 and sneaked into a women’s cellblock, where Karla Wilson had jammed the lock on her cell door to let him in. An hour later, L’Italien was caught going back to his cell.

Joyce said Friday the incident was an unfortunate lapse but an anomaly, and that the jail and its staff meet the highest national standards established by the American Correctional Association and the state.

“We do a lot of things right every day,” Joyce said, “and we’re always working to stay one step ahead of the inmates, who are always looking to manipulate the system somewhere, be it drugs or messing with locks or what have you.”

Joyce’s review of the records shows that nine and a half years ago, on Sept. 16, 2002, corrections officers discovered that a female inmate had apparently tampered with the lock and gotten out of her cell, Joyce said.

“A female was able to get out of her cell into the day room, but she didn’t go any farther than that. They say that it appears she had messed with the locks,” Joyce said.

Then, during a bed check on Oct. 16, 2002, an officer found that two inmates had packed plastic into the cell door’s strike plate so that the bolt would not latch. Although neither got outside of the cell, each was placed in segregation for the offense.

Two weeks later, an inmate used the same technique to slip out of his cell after lockdown and pass through an adjacent day room to the day room for another bank of cells housing male inmates.

A corrections officer spotted the inmate — in pink boxer shorts — running from one day room to the other, and he was returned to his cell.

The day rooms in that incident were the same ones that L’Italien and Wilson passed through on March 9.

The reports on the earlier incident say the inmate did not get into anyone else’s cell, Joyce said. The incident report does not describe the purpose of the inmate’s nighttime sojourn. It says the cells opening into the adjoining day room were occupied by male inmates.

Joyce said the report also does not say whether the day-room doors had been left open. Those doors, which open from a common area outside the cells onto a landing, had historically been left open, which is how L’Italien slipped out of his cell area and into Wilson’s.

It appears they were left open in 2002 as well because that inmate reportedly moved from one day room to another.

The incident occurred during the tenure of former Sheriff Mark Dion — now a state representative. Joyce was a captain in the sheriff’s patrol division at the time and said he has no direct knowledge of the incidents.

The technique of packing the locks with plastic so they do not latch is apparently how L’Italien got out of his cell and how Wilson let him into hers, where the two had sex on March 9. L’Italien was caught returning from the female cells to his own cellblock.

State inspectors visited the jail Monday and were satisfied that the steps taken by the corrections staff should prevent similar incidents in the future, Joyce said.

The jail staff now lock the day-room doors, have moved the observation post in the maximum security area to improve visibility, and physically check the locks for tampering.

“What we’re doing now is actually physically checking the hole where the (strike) plate is on the door and making sure nothing is packed in there,” a check that is recorded in a daily logbook, he said.

Joyce said the jail’s electrician also will install a buzzer that will sound when a cell door is opened after hours, alerting corrections officers. He expects an internal review will be completed next week and that it will identify any other deficiencies that remain.

Joyce has said that despite the March 9 incident, the public can be confident that the jail and its staff are some of the highest-rated in Maine.

The jail set a state record in 2000 with a 97 percent rating in its first state inspection, according to press reports at the time. It also was the first correctional facility in Maine to be nationally accredited.

Joyce said a national review by the American Correctional Association, issued in 2007, found the jail in compliance with all mandatory standards and 99.5 percent of non-mandatory standards. The jail met 98.3 percent of non-mandatory standards in 2011, he said.

The state’s biennial inspection in December 2011 found the jail met all state standards, according to its report.

“When things are going very well, you don’t hear about the good things they’re doing,” Joyce said.

“This one incident, it was a wake-up call for the corrections officers but also a big disappointment,” he said. “They’re back on track doing their job professionally the way they do it on a day-by-day basis.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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