A former captain of the guards at the Maine State Prison says he retired out of frustration last month after being blamed by investigators looking into the hazing of new officers.
Kenneth Vigue, who retired voluntarily on July 21 after working for the Department of Corrections for more than 22 years, said on Friday that he was not involved when a veteran guard allegedly locked a new correctional officer in a fenced yard outside the prison.
“This investigation took place and I retired rather than go through the process, but at no time did I admit any fault,” Vigue said in an interview, adding that he didn’t learn about the incident until days after it happened.
The investigation, which the Department of Corrections has not confirmed, started with a complaint by a young officer hired by the Department of Corrections this year. He complained he was mocked by other guards over an open radio channel after being locked in the fenced area.
The officer was unfamiliar with the Warren prison, which houses more than 900 medium- and high-security inmates, and had to rely on the guards who were hazing him to get safely from one locked section to another, according to former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect current employees who could face retaliation for speaking with them.
It is unclear whether the department’s investigation is focusing on a single incident or includes a broader culture of hazing at the state’s largest prison, which one state legislator says has a nearly 80 percent turnover rate among newly hired guards.
UNION: NO ONE HAS BEEN FIRED
The probe comes on the heels of several recent security lapses, including the murders of two inmates by other inmates in the past 13 months, as well as a change in department leadership. Former Commissioner Joseph Ponte left in April to head New York City’s jails and Associate Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick was appointed to replace him.
Vigue is the only person so far to leave the Warren prison in response to the hazing investigation. No employee discipline has been made public.
Multiple people, including several former Department of Corrections employees, have said the hazing incident in early May involved veteran guard Kevin Cox. A sergeant at the time, Cox allegedly locked out the young officer, who had graduated from the department’s academy this year.
Jim Mackie, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents state prison guards and sergeants, said claims that Cox has been fired are not true. He added that the officer who complained about the hazing incident has not sought union representation.
“Kevin Cox has not been discharged,” Mackie said. “I can’t comment on it right now because it is subject to the arbitration/grievance process, which may take several months.”
Neither Cox nor the young officer have listed telephone numbers, and neither responded to a message sent to each of their Facebook accounts.
The Department of Corrections has refused to answer any questions about the investigation. Spokesman Scott Fish has refused to confirm that the investigation exists, even after several legislators, the state Attorney General’s Office and Mackie discussed it publicly.
“If there is an ongoing investigation, the response would be the same as with all ongoing investigations: No comment,” Fish said in a July 24 email, the department’s only statement so far.
In response to a Freedom of Access Act request filed by the Portland Press Herald, Fish only identified Vigue and his retirement date. He refused to give other details about Cox, other employees under investigation, or internal communications between the Attorney General’s Office and the governor’s office, saying the information was protected by personnel confidentiality statutes.
A PERSONNEL MATTER
The prison investigation is being conducted jointly by the Department of Corrections’ division of internal affairs and the state Bureau of Human Resources.
Laurel Shippee, the state Equal Employment Opportunity coordinator in the Bureau of Human Resources, is one of the lead investigators. She did not return a message seeking comment. Prison warden Rodney Bouffard also did not return a message requesting comment.
State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an unenrolled legislator from Friendship whose district includes the Warren prison, was alerted to the alleged hazing on May 15, less than two weeks after it happened.
“Because I live in the district, I probably get more calls than anyone else,” Evangelos said.
Evangelos said he forwarded the information to the Attorney General’s Office, his usual practice when prison complaints are brought to his attention.
Timothy Feeley, spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said his office received Evangelos’ concerns, but declined to launch a criminal investigation after contacting the Department of Corrections.
“We confirmed his email related to a prison personnel matter,” Feeley said. “They were already aware of it.”
On the day of the alleged incident, Vigue said he was the shift supervisor overseeing all units, but did not hear radio calls from the officer asking for help, or another officer speaking to him over the radio.
Vigue said he was eligible to retire in February, but had originally agreed to extend his retirement date until December to give the Department of Corrections time to hire and train new officers.
“The only reason I hadn’t retired yet is, as a loyal employee, I was staying to allow the next two classes to graduate so they could back fill the officers’ positions,” Vigue said.
LAWMAKERS PROMISE HEARINGS
Vigue, 55, says he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1977, becoming a drill sergeant and serving for 11 years. He became a correctional officer in 1992 and returned to military duty from 1998 to 2009, when he served in the Maine Army National Guard.
State Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he has brought concerns about hazing to the House leadership this week, citing the nearly 80 percent turnover rate among new guards.
Both Dion and Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chairman of the committee, have vowed to hold hearings on the investigation once it has concluded.
Dion said he spoke with Deputy Commissioner Jody Breton last week, urging her and the department to be transparent rather than relying on legislators to keep the public informed.
“We exercise oversight, but I think the Department of Corrections must demonstrate leadership and come out and talk about this,” Dion said. “I think transparency is important. You can’t conduct this in a vacuum. It only invites speculation.”