March 28, 2013

Maine Voices: Windham prison guard's reinstatement poorly thought-out decision

Even the incarcerated deserve better than a man who violated policy by pepper spraying an inmate.

By William King of Saco, a former federal prison investigator

SACO - David Hench's article about Maine Correctional Center Capt. Shawn Welch's handling of inmate Paul Schlosser ("Prison captain fired, but later reinstated, after pepper spraying inmate," March 17) temporarily removed the cloak of secrecy from the Maine Department of Corrections.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William King is a Saco resident and a former federal prison investigator.

Hench investigated an incident in which Welch applied OC (oleoresin capsicum) spray to Schlosser, who appeared to be restrained, and then ordered the application of a spit mask that traps the powerful irritant.

Welch claims he used OC spray because the inmate, who is infected with hepatitis C, spat at a correctional officer.

A videotape of the incident shows that the inmate, fully restrained and surrounded by five correctional officers, did appear to spit at an officer. But that officer was outfitted with personal protection equipment, affording full protection.

Nevertheless, Welch doused the inmate with Mark 9, a pepper spray that is designed for crowds and recommended for use at a distance of six feet or more. Welch shot the spray directly into Schlosser's face, at a distance of approximately 18 inches.

The video clearly shows Schlosser in distress.

While I am not an inmate sympathizer, the state has an obligation to treat individuals humanely whenever we assume complete control over their lives.

From Welch's statements, it appeared that Schlosser was being punished for a past misdeed. Welch ordered the application of the spit mask on the compliant inmate, thus trapping in the vapors and aggravating the choking sensation. Welch obviously never learned that inmates are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

Then-MDOC investigator Scott Durst, a career law enforcement officer with a stellar record, concluded that Welch violated a myriad of regulations. Durst, a cop through and through, exhibited courage to report his findings that resulted in Welch's dismissal.

Welch appealed his dismissal, but MCC Superintendent Scott Burnheimer upheld it.

The primary goal of the Maine Correctional Center is to rehabilitate inmates. Teaching an offender marketable skills and having officers model behavior are core ingredients. Dehumanizing an inmate does not contribute to the process. Perhaps Burnheimer realized that Welch does not exhibit the desired traits required in a professional correctional setting.

However, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte disagreed. He reversed the decision to terminate Welch and reduced his "punishment" to a mere 30 days' suspension. Ponte reasoned that Welch's exemplary record mitigated his "one bad decision."

Is Ponte serious? Has he never heard of "negligent retention"?

It's clear from Welch's cool manner on the video that to spray the inmate without warning apparently was his modus operandi. Welch did not appear to be acting in a sudden, fleeting moment of anger.

A captain in a correctional setting is the highest-level official in the institution when administrators go home. The institution belongs to Welch -- he is the man in charge. The other corrections officers stood helpless as the "top man" appeared to personalize an interaction with an inmate.

Ponte must have forgotten about Martin Lee Anderson -- the 14-year-old Florida boy who died in 2006 after forced exercise at a boot camp-style state youth detention center.

When the boy collapsed, several officers stood over him, taunting him to get up while he pleaded for help. Martin had an undetected genetic blood disorder and died.

His death forced the closure of all of Florida's boot camps in 2006; his family was awarded $5 million in a negotiated settlement.

Maine taxpayers incurred an increased liability because of Ponte's decision to retain Welch. Maine citizens, even incarcerated ones, deserve better than Welch, and it is unnerving to think that Welch has retained his rank with complete control over several hundred inmates, including Schlosser. Taxpayers depend on Ponte to mitigate liability for us, and he let us down.

At his own peril, somebody at the prison "leaked" the video to the media. This is clearly an employee's desperate attempt to obtain an independent review of Welch's behavior. Perhaps past internal reviews have proven inept.

Recently, Durst left his job as MDOC internal investigator to become a civilian contractor in Afghanistan.

He is just the latest of several investigators to leave the Corrections Department in the past five years. Perhaps it is the obvious lack of support that forces these investigators to leave their jobs.

Whatever the reason, it is telling that Durst would rather take his chances in a war zone than remain at the Maine Correctional Center.

– Special to the Press Herald

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