March 22, 2013

Our View: Prison leak probe looks for the wrong problem

Corrections officials should be upset about what a video shows, not who released it.

If Maine corrections officials are embarrassed, they have good reason.

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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An in-house video that showed a supervisor at the Windham prison inappropriately using pepper spray on a restrained inmate leaving him in distress for 20 minutes was shocking when it was revealed in a story in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The officer, Capt. Shawn Welch, was fired by his supervisors after they viewed the video, but the punishment was reduced to a 30-day suspension by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

Now that the public has seen the video, this would be good time for the department to explain what steps have been taken to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. Instead, they are taking steps to make sure that no explosive video like this ever reaches the public again.

The department is conducting an investigation to find the source of the video and is contemplating disciplinary action if it was a departmental employee. The investigator is claiming that the probe is necessary because release of the video violated an inmate's privacy. But this looks more like a bureaucracy covering its tracks.

Without the video, its unlikely that anyone would listen to the inmate's claim that he was abused. Welch's discipline would not be known outside the institution, and business would have returned to normal. The investigation and potential discipline seem less about protecting an inmate's privacy than in making sure the department is not embarrassed in this way again.

It's important to realize what the video shows. Not only did Welch use a pepper spray canister designed for crowd control on a restrained, if unruly, inmate, he did it without warning.

Although its was an emotionally charged situation, Welch did not appear to be overcome with emotion. His reaction was quick and businesslike and when he taunted the inmate later he did not raise his voice.

None of the other corrections officers in the video spoke up when the spray was used. None even looked surprised. Judging from their responses, this use of pepper spray was nothing out of the ordinary.

This is what the department should be worried about, not who made this incident public. The department may have a problem but if so, it's an excessive force problem, not a leak problem.

The department is right to be embarrassed, but wrong if it thinks the answer is punishing employees for telling the truth.


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