The Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee this week will review the alleged mistreatment of a Maine Correctional Center inmate last spring to ensure it is an aberration and not an ongoing practice.
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, chairman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he received several calls from committee members after a story in this week’s Maine Sunday Telegram described how a corrections department captain pepper-sprayed an inmate bound in a restraint chair.
“My initial reaction was how appalled I was. I was really mad,” Gerzofsky said. “I’ve had issues with the use of the (restraint) chair over the years.”
“Because this is a front-page story, the committee members are going to have a lot of questions,” he said. “We’ll probably invite the department and people who would be in charge” to address the committee.
The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition condemned the treatment and said the incident could influence upcoming legislation, including a bill that would prohibit inmates from filing protection-from-harassment complaints against corrections officers.
The Maine Sunday Telegram story described Capt. Shawn Welch’s treatment of inmate Paul Schlosser III on June 10, 2012, conduct for which Welch was suspended for 30 days without pay.
A video of the incident obtained by the newspaper and published on its website, pressherald.com, showed a frustrated Schlosser refusing to go to the medical unit for treatment of a self-inflicted arm injury.
Officers, dressed in protective gear, are then shown removing Schlosser from his cell and placing him in a restraint chair so medical staff could work on his wound. Schlosser, who suffers from bipolar disorder and depression and was on several medications at the time, was at first compliant.
But when one of the officers pins back Schlosser’s head, as his arms are being put into the chair’s restraints, Schlosser starts to struggle. When he spits at one of the officers, Welch sprays him with pepper spray, also called OC spray.
Schlosser becomes compliant and complains about not being able to breathe. One officer puts a spit mask on him, trapping the pepper spray on Schlosser’s face.
Welch tells him he must cooperate to avoid similar treatment. Schlosser is in distress for 24 minutes before he is allowed to wash his face.
An investigator’s report on the incident, obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram, said Welch used a pepper spray canister that was intended for multiple subjects, 18 to 20 feet away. He also said prison policy indicates Welch should have allowed his staff to handle the extraction of Schlosser from his cell while he watched from a safe vantage point.
The investigator also said that, in the minutes after the spraying, Welch made several statements that made the confrontation appear personal. The investigator, former Maine Drug Enforcement Agency detective Scott Durst, concluded that Welch used excessive force in the incident.
Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said last week the incident started out with the prison staff correctly trying to get Schlosser the treatment he needed despite his resistance.
Ponte said Welch’s behavior as the incident went on was troubling, but he determined, based on Welch’s unblemished record, that a suspension was appropriate and that Welch would not be fired.
Gerzofsky said he will ask the Maine Department of Corrections to brief the committee on the incident this week. He said the committee has an oversight role in corrections but does not micromanage the department and typically does not weigh in on personnel matters.
However, he said it appeared the administration handled the incident appropriately.
“They gave the highest punishment they could short of termination,” he said. “They dealt with it immediately. It wasn’t swept under the carpet.”
Gerzofsky said he heard about the incident last summer after a decision was made initially to fire Welch, then was overruled and he was suspended instead. He did not see the video and had not seen it when discussing the case Sunday afternoon.
Gerzofsky said the committee’s role is to make sure that incidents like the one involving Welch and Schlosser are the exception and not commonplace.
The committee is due to be briefed later in the session, after the budget is completed, on the use of force – including the restraint chair and OC spray – in the state’s prisons, he said.
Legislators have worked hard to make sure the restraint chair is used rarely, and the department has made strides in that arena, he said.
Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, House chairman of the committee and former sheriff of Cumberland County, which has the state’s largest county jail, said use of force to control or manage inmate behavior is part of a corrections officer’s duties.
“What I focused on and what the investigator focused on, is the application of OC spray to someone who is in restraint,” he said.
Dion said he is more concerned about the institution’s overall use of control and how it investigates allegations of misconduct.
“My questions will be, let’s see the data. How often have they used the restraint chair, use of control, use of force” and what criteria is used to order an investigation, he said.
“That’s important because I think for families, this family (Schlosser’s) probably stands in for all other prison families: Can I trust the system to police itself?”
The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said the captain’s behavior violated ethical standards of human behavior.
“Captain Welch’s years of experience and training should have equipped him to handle Paul Schlosser in a humane and effective way,” said a statement issued Sunday by Judy Garvey and Jim Bergin, coordinators of the coalition. “From the report and video, it is painfully apparent that anger, rather than experience and training, became the dominant factor.”
The coalition disagrees with Ponte’s decision to reinstate Welch, but credited the commissioner with positive reforms in the state’s facilities.
The Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing Tuesday on a bill that seeks to prevent prisoners from filing protection-from-harassment complaints against corrections personnel. The coalition opposes the measure.
“This process safeguards against harassment and retaliation by corrections personnel,” the statement said. “It should be obvious that this protection needs to remain in place even if used only a few times a year.”
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: