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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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:

dhench@mainetoday.com

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