March 18, 2013

Corrections officer's actions to be reviewed

A legislative committee wants to ensure that use of restraints and pepper spray are the exception.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Maine Correctional Center inmate Paul Schlosser, who is bound in a restraint chair, June 10, 2012. Welch told an investigator that the use of pepper spray was appropriate because Schlosser, who has hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.

Image taken from video obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

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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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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