Politics

March 27, 2013

Legislators grill Corrections chief on use-of-force incidents

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee questioned Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte on Wednesday about his department's internal-affairs and use-of-force procedures, in response to an incident at the Maine Correctional Center last year.

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Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, left, answers questions from the Legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday March 27, 2013 at the State House in Augusta.

Andy Molloy/Staff Photographer

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The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee spent an hour questioning Ponte about the use of restraint chairs, the use of pepper spray, the department's investigative procedures and its ability to track uses of force, including by specific officers.

A report in the Maine Sunday Telegram on March 17 described a prison captain's use of pepper spray on a restrained inmate who was not allowed to wash his face for 24 minutes after the spraying on June 10. The story was accompanied by a video of the incident on the newspaper's website.

"Many of us were troubled with the incident that happened that prompted you being here today," said Sen. Gary Plummer of Windham, the ranking Republican on the committee. "Going forward, are you confident you have the tools in place to investigate any incidents of excessive force and deal with them quickly and appropriately?"

Ponte replied, "I believe we have probably 100 times more central office oversight" than the department had in the past.

Ponte told the committee that when he took over as commissioner in 2011, there was no central accounting of uses of force or investigations, and very little tracking of that information.

Now, any use of force, including restraint or pepper spray, is reported to him personally, he said, and the commissioner's office tracks that information.

Ponte said he is consulted before any planned use of force, such as extracting a prisoner from a cell.

"We're trying to change the culture," he said. "I'm trying to inject my thoughts on the issue: 'Wait a minute. Do we even need to do that? Or can we do things in a different way?'"

In the incident at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Capt. Shawn Welch sprayed Paul Schlosser, an inmate with mental illness, while Schlosser was restrained.

From about 18 inches away, Welch used pepper spray designed for long range. He then made comments that were described by an investigator as taunting.

Prison officials decided to fire Welch, but Ponte intervened and Welch was instead suspended for 30 days.

Ponte said later that it was a single mistake in Welch's otherwise unblemished career.

Ponte said he doesn't recall whether he was consulted before Schlosser was removed from his cell, but said he would have approved it because Schlosser was injuring himself and it was necessary to treat his injuries.

Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, the committee's House chairman, had requested data on the use of force in the prisons.

Ponte provided the committee with data showing that in 2012, officers at the Maine Correctional Center used pepper spray 20 times and the restraint chair nine times. At the Maine State Prison in Warren, pepper spray was used 40 times and the restraint chair was used four times.

Ponte said use of the restraint chair and cell extractions, which almost always involve pepper spray, have decreased dramatically at both prisons in the past two years.

"If an inmate is in restraints or in a restraint chair, there's no good reason why we would use pepper spray of any kind," Ponte said.

Legislators expressed satisfaction that the incident in June was isolated and the department dealt with it appropriately.

But some members stressed the need for an independent internal-affairs unit in the department.

"Internal affairs will provide for a level of comfort that most people expect from a large organization," said Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta.

He also said the department's commitment to collecting and tracking information would enable legislators to determine whether the incident in June was part of a systemic problem.

Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, a former state trooper, said the force had two internal-affairs investigators for 200 troopers, while the Department of Corrections has more than 1,300 employees.

Ponte agreed the department would benefit from a dedicated internal-affairs unit.

Dion said the committee will track the Corrections Department's effort to develop a distinct internal-affairs program and it might create a subcommittee to participate, as part of its oversight role.

 

David Hench can be reached at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

 

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