PORTLAND — The ACLU of Maine Foundation filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming that two Cumberland County Jail guards brutally beat an inmate from El Salvador without provocation.

The complaint filed by the civil liberties group in U.S. District Court accuses Glenn MacDonald and Steven Pyle of using excessive force against Wilmer Moreno Recinos and causing him long-term physical problems, including abdominal pain and difficulty eating, and psychological issues like anxiety, depression and sleeplessness.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for violations of Recinos’ due process rights under the federal and state constitutions, and for assault and battery.

The lawyer representing the corrections officers said they used the minimum force needed to deal with the threat posed by Recinos.

One of the officers was suspended for using excessive force in the incident.

Recinos was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Cumberland County Jail when the incident occurred, on Nov. 10, 2010. He had been arrested for violating a no-trespass order at the Preble Street Resource Center and turned over to federal authorities. He has since been deported for being in the United States illegally.

According to his lawyers, Recinos has food allergies and sought assistance from the jail’s medical cart when he began feeling feverish and asthmatic after eating a sandwich. He asked to be brought to the jail’s medical clinic but was refused by a corrections officer, according to the complaint.

MacDonald and Pyle were taking him back to his cell when they pushed the inmate hard from behind and caused him to fall on his knees, the complaint says. The officers began hitting him, and continued to do so after he balled up in a protective posture on the floor, the complaint says. Pyle then sprayed pepper spray into the inmate’s face, and backup officers arrived.

“We are seeking in this case to send the message that no one – not prisoners, and not immigrants awaiting deportation – should be treated as less than human,” said Jodi Nofsinger, a lawyer from the firm Berman & Simmons who is working on the case with the ACLU of Maine.

Nofsinger said Recinos had to go to the hospital for treatment and continued to need medical care for injuries for the approximately five months he remained in the jail.

MacDonald could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Pyle, through a union representative, declined to comment.

After an internal investigation, MacDonald was suspended for one day for using excessive force. A memo from Jail Administrator Francine Breton noted that the command staff that reviewed the incident was unanimous in finding he’d used excessive force against Recinos.

“At a point in time, the inmate clearly stopped resisting and was in the fetal position with his hands covering his head when you continued to punch him several times. A person does not have to be injured to conclude that excessive force was used,” Breton wrote in the memo, which was included as an exhibit with Recinos’ lawsuit.

Breton noted that MacDonald said he felt he had no control over Recinos, who was trying to bite him and was resisting verbal commands. She wrote that the incident appeared to be a case of “going overboard” because of frustration.

Pyle was not disciplined for the incident.

Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine Foundation, said accountability is needed.

“At the time of the incident, Wilmer was an immigration detainee, he had not been convicted of any crime. The United States Constitution protects him just as it protects all of us. In order for the Constitution’s protections to be meaningful, there needs to be meaningful sanctions when there is a violation,” Heiden said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

At its news conference, the ACLU played surveillance footage from two point-of-views of the jail area. The two sides in the suit offered sharply contrasting interpretations of the images.

At a separate news conference at the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, Peter Marchesi, the lawyer representing the officers, said Recinos defied directions to leave the medical cart, had to be escorted through the jail pod, which had to be locked down because of him, and refused to enter his cell.

“The allegations in the complaint are offensive, are sensationalistic and are inflammatory,” Marchesi said. “And I have every confidence that when we have the opportunity to develop the evidence in the case and bring to light the conduct of Mr. Recinos, folks will be satisfied that the officers demonstrated exemplary behavior, were restrained in every fashion and that their conduct certainly passes constitutional muster.”

MacDonald had bite marks on one hand after the incident, and Recinos had no visible marks or signs of injuries, Marchesi said.

Nofsinger, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said medical records described bruising on Recinos’ torso.

Marchesi said jail policies hold officers to a higher standard than what is required by the Constitution, which will be the standard in the case.

The incident led to the offer of a consent agreement between MacDonald and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, the body that certifies and trains corrections officers.

MacDonald was to complete a course on unarmed self-defense, but he moved to Michigan and never signed the consent agreement, according to John Rogers, the director of the academy.

Rogers said the alleged conduct was not egregious enough to warrant decertification.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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