AUGUSTA — Because he had a history of assaulting others, no one expected 66-year-old James N. Staples to harm himself.

But he gouged his own eyes out a month or so ago while he was being held at the Maine State Prison’s intensive mental health unit.

He spent about a week at Tufts Medical Center in Boston for treatment of those injuries. Kennebec County is now being asked to pay a $39,000 bill to cover the cost of the Maine Department of Corrections employees who guarded Staples while he was hospitalized.

On Wednesday, Staples was at the Capital Judicial Center to be arraigned on felony assault charges from February 2017.

Now blind, the 6-foot-2 Staples was guided carefully into the courtroom with his hands and feet shackled. Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office deputies wearing protective purple gloves touched him occasionally and talked to him to indicate where he should walk, where he should sit and what was around him.

Both of Staples’ forearms were wrapped in white gauzy material.

Justice Michaela Murphy presented a matter-of-fact outline of events that brought Staples to the courtroom after finding that he was competent to enter a plea in the case.

“As court understands it, he started out as civil commitment patient,” Murphy said. Then a series of assault charges in February 2017 at Riverview Psychiatric Center brought Staples to the Kennebec County jail. Officials there decided they could not address Staples’ mental health needs, so he was sent to the intensive mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren..

“In Warren, he injured himself quite severely and is now blind,” Murphy said.

Staples is being held in the prison infirmary, and two uniformed emergency medical technicians accompanied Staples to court.

Assistant District Attorney Kate Marshall said the state was proceeding only on a felony assault charge from Feb. 15, 2017. In that incident, Staples is accused of punching a woman, a fellow Riverview patient, in the face.

When she asked Staples to enter a plea, he said, “I’m NCR, your honor,” indicating he was not criminally responsible for his actions at that time.

The state dismissed charges that he assaulted a mental health worker on Feb. 3, 2017, and two corrections officers at the Kennebec County jail on Feb. 26, 2017.

Murphy also said she knew that plans called for Staples to be treated at a South Carolina mental health facility if she found him not criminally responsible for the assault, but that a bed was no longer available, and it might take until August to get another one.

The judge said there was no place in the Department of Corrections or the mental health system for Staples, calling that “a serious and shameful situation.”

Assistant Attorney General James Fortin, representing the Department of Corrections, said, “The department does not feel prison is appropriate. He needs to be treated in a hospital setting.”

Assistant Attorney General Molly Moynihan, representing the Department of Health and Human Services, said that if Staples was found not criminally responsible for the assaults and placed in the custody of the department’s commissioner, Staples would be placed “in an appropriate institution.”

Two other people from Maine, Anthony Reed and Michael James, who were formerly patients at Riverview and held at the Maine State Prison, are being held at the Columbia Regional Care Center, a privately operated health care facility in South Carolina.

Murphy said she would continue Staples’ case until July 10 to allow the parties to find a placement for Staples that was appropriate under Maine law.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason watched the hearing from a bench in the public area of the courtroom.

Before the hearing, he said he probably was not going to pay the $39,000 bill, adding that he would talk to the prison warden, Randall Liberty. “Why should it fall on the shoulders of Kennebec County taxpayers?” Mason asked.

Murphy referred to the bill during the hearing and urged the state departments to work together to resolve that matter.

Mason said he is concerned that Riverview patients who are arrested on criminal charges are brought to the jail, which is not suited to offering their mental health treatment.

“If he’s not criminally responsible, he doesn’t belong in my jail. He began assaulting my staff,” Mason said. “They’re not punching bags. At the prison they have facilities to deal with Mr. Staples.”

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who sat at the prosecution table, said afterward, “What I can’t understand is why Maine can’t offer mental health treatment that South Carolina can. Why can’t we offer them that treatment in Maine?”

She said the case was continued so that Staples could remain in prison because an immediate finding of not criminally responsible could put him back in Riverview, where his restraints — the wrist and leg shackles he had on in court — would be removed.

Maloney said Riverview is not capable of keeping Staples safe from himself.

“He doesn’t immediately self-harm,” she said. “He’s smart. He waits and he plans and then he self-harms.”

At the prison, the restraints can remain in place. In Riverview, she said, federal regulations say he cannot be restrained “unless the threat of self-harm is immediate.”

The May 2017 indictment against Staples lists nine prior assault convictions, beginning in 2009 in Bangor and ending with six convictions from July 19, 2016, in Penobscot County.

“He didn’t have a history of self-harm; he had a history of assaulting others,” his attorney Douglas Jennings said after the hearing. “This threw us for a loop.” Jennings said Staples took his eyes out with his own hands.

Jennings said doctors at Tufts were able to do “mostly cosmetic” repairs of the injuries.

He said Staples agreed to be sent to the South Carolina facility.

“He wants to be in a hospital; he doesn’t want to be in prison.” Jennings added, “It’s really a tragic thing. Everybody is trying to do the right thing. He’s a very nice fellow despite all this.”

Murphy continued the hearing until July 10, when, she indicated, she will make a finding that Staples is not criminally responsible for his actions.

He would then be placed in the custody of the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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Twitter: @betadams