AUGUSTA — Handcuffed and pinned to the floor by three fellow guards, Cory Peaslee said he looked up to see a sergeant stepping in to point a can of pepper spray in his face.
About 15 other guards watched as the sergeant ordered Peaslee, a rookie correctional officer at Maine State Prison, to stop resisting and let them handcuff him to a door.
Peaslee was eventually released, but after the hazing he never worked another full shift as a correctional officer.
The incident May 11 was part of a pattern of harassment of new guards at Maine’s largest prison, according to Peaslee, who described his experiences to the Portland Press Herald during an interview at his Augusta home this week.
The first incident was preceded by one earlier that day in which Peaslee said a different sergeant locked him outside the prison’s maximum-security unit in a fenced yard where riflemen have orders to shoot anyone suspected of being an inmate trying to escape.
The incidents were reported by guards who were troubled by what they had seen, sparking separate investigations by the Department of Corrections’ division of internal affairs and the state Bureau of Human Resources into both the incident and the broader culture of hazing by guards.
Peaslee, 20, was not identified by the Department of Corrections, but the Press Herald obtained his name through sources. He agreed to an interview this week after being contacted through Facebook.
State lawmakers are calling on officials from the Department of Corrections to testify at a State House committee hearing in Augusta during the second week of September about the hazing and the investigation. The prison has a capacity for 916 inmates, with a staff of 410, according to the Department of Corrections website.
“I have a lot of questions I want answered,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, co-chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee who scheduled the hearing. “They gave us a briefing already, but I want to make it a public briefing.”
The approximately 80 percent turnover rate among rookie guards is far too high, Gerzofsky said. “They need to work with each other, not against each other. Everybody comes in as a rookie,” he said.
Peaslee said the hazing began with needling and mischief when he started at the prison in March after graduating from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro.
“You expect a little messing around because it’s a prison job. You’re going to have to deal with inmates anyway. Harassing, making fun, just little things, not a big deal at first,” he said.
Peaslee signed up to become a prison guard because he dreamed of a career in law enforcement, possibly as a K-9 officer for a sheriff’s department or the Maine State Police.
During academy training in February, he posted a picture of himself on Facebook, wearing his correctional officer’s uniform and badge. He said his parents and family were proud of him, seeing the new job as a good career step.
After he worked at the prison for a while, veteran guards eventually began targeting him and other new graduates with harsher treatment, Peaslee said.
“If they’re doing it to me, how many other people have they done this to who are like, ‘I’m not dealing with this. I don’t know why I’m working this job. I don’t get paid enough,’ ” Peaslee said.
The May hazing started with a prank by his supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Cox, who hid Peaslee’s lunch box above a ceiling tile in his office, Peaslee said.
It took him about 45 minutes to find the lunch box. Cox took it again, moving it outside to a fenced yard next to the maximum-security unit that guards call “no man’s land,” Peaslee said.
“So he runs out, puts my lunch box out there, and says ‘You better radio and tell them that you are going out there to get your lunch box or you’re going to get shot.’ So I radio to central, I radio to the outside patrol vehicle to let them know that I’m actually going to be in no man’s land.”
When Peaslee went to get the lunch box, Cox locked him out.
“This now locks me out behind the (maximum-security) unit,” Peaslee said. “So he tells me to go through Gate 8. And I said, ‘You seriously aren’t going to let me back in?’ ”
Peaslee said that when he did get back inside, Cox ordered him to conduct an emergency drill over the radio involving a scenario in which an inmate refused to be locked up. At the end of the drill, a veteran guard threatened him with pepper spray and ordered him to read a “debriefing” message over the radio that said he had “always dreamed of being a sugarplum fairy princess” and that Cox was his “overlord daddy,” Peaslee said.
“There’s at least 15 staff involved at this point, because I had people from medium unit who responded to the (drill) because they thought it was real,” Peaslee said. “Once I get out in the hall, they wrestle me to the ground … and it’s three of them on top of me, and they get my hands out and handcuff me.”
That’s when the second sergeant threatened him by holding a can of pepper spray to his face, Peaslee said.
Cox, who was identified by a union representative, did not return a phone message seeking comment this week. The other sergeant has not been officially identified.
“They finally unlocked me and let me free. And that was pretty much the end of the day,” he said.
When Peaslee reported for his next shift days later, other guards had already reported the incident. Peaslee was called into a meeting with the warden, two deputy wardens, a secretary and an investigator from the Bureau of Human Resources to answer questions, he said.
He was initially put on paid administrative leave, and then transferred to another state job, with the Department of Transportation.
But he doesn’t believe his troubles with the prison are behind him. He has been told to expect to have to testify at upcoming hearings or possible court proceedings.
It is unclear whether any of the veteran guards under investigation have been disciplined. Department of Corrections officials have refused to comment about the incident other than to confirm that the investigation exists and to release the name of one person they say was involved, Capt. Kenneth Vigue, who retired voluntarily on July 21.
Vigue, the commander in charge during the shift when Peaslee was hazed, said in an interview this month that he retired early because he was frustrated about being accused in the investigation. He denied involvement in the hazing or any knowledge that Peaslee had been locked out of the building until days afterward.
Joseph Fitzpatrick, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, confirmed that the investigation existed after it was discussed by lawmakers and Jim Mackie, an official with the union that represents state prison guards and sergeants. Fitzpatrick said state personnel laws prevent him from releasing other details until the investigation concludes.
“We do take things like this very seriously,” Fitzpatrick said.
Mackie, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union official, has said any discipline would be subject to an arbitration or grievance process that could take several months to resolve. Mackie has said claims that Cox had been fired are not true. The union has declined to comment further on the investigation.
The investigation comes on the heels of several recent security lapses at the prison, including the murders of two inmates by other inmates within the past 14 months, as well as a change in department leadership. Former Commissioner Joseph Ponte left in April to head New York City’s jails, and Fitzpatrick was appointed to replace him.