The Cumberland County Jail is facing criticism for using pepper spray on an inmate and failing to wash it off properly before transporting him to a psychiatric hospital in Augusta.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, complained about the treatment of the inmate in a June 10 letter to Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections. The alliance asked that the corrections department investigate the February 2019 incident to see whether “state and federal law, state regulations and the county’s own policies” were followed.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, said she waited more than a year to make the issue public because she was trying to work within the system to make changes. When she wasn’t able to get results, she contacted the media to shed light on the issue.

Rodney Bouffard, superintendent of Riverview Psychiatric Center, said the spray had not been properly washed off before the one-hour drive from the jail, and the inmate had to be treated for pepper spray symptoms at MaineGeneral Hospital in Augusta.

Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which operates Riverview in Augusta, said in a statement to the Press Herald that after arriving at the hospital from the jail, “the patient displayed a concerning physical reaction consistent with having been pepper sprayed.”

“Riverview staff immediately provided appropriate care, including showering the patient to remove remaining spray and a referral to a hospital based on the patient’s severe symptoms,” Farwell said in a statement. “(Riverview) Superintendent Rodney Bouffard promptly contacted Sheriff Kevin Joyce after the patient was admitted to express his concerns about the patient’s condition, including that the patient did not appear to have been appropriately cared for by jail staff following the apparent use of pepper spray.”

She said there may have been a second pepper spray incident involving a different patient who was transported from the Cumberland County Jail, but “staff did not witness the incident or its immediate effects.”

Joyce said in an interview Tuesday that the patient was uncooperative and aggressive – including charging at corrections officers – before being transported. He said jail employees prefer to not use force to subdue patients prior to transport, but will if they have to.

“The protocols were followed,” Joyce said. “You can’t expect the jail to be a mental health hospital. We are not trained for that.”

Joyce said Cumberland County Jail regularly transports incarcerated people to Riverview, but pepper spray is used rarely, about a handful of times per year.

The sheriff said jail staff did wash the pepper spray from the person transported to Riverview. But he said some people have more severe and longer-lasting reactions to the spray even after it is washed off.

Pepper spray can cause swelling, skin irritation, a burning sensation in the throat, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and a gagging reflex.

Liberty, the corrections commissioner to whom NAMI Maine wrote the letter, was not available for an interview Tuesday, corrections department spokeswoman Anna Black said.

Mehnert, the NAMI executive director, said that the use of pepper spray to subdue patients prior to transport should be extremely rare and a last resort only after all other options have been exhausted.

“The utilization of pepper spray is inhumane, especially when patients don’t understand what is happening to them,” Mehnert said in an interview.

In her letter to Liberty, Mehnert said that the department should review all evidence, including possible video records of the incident.

NAMI helped to develop the Crisis Intervention Team Program, a national program that helps corrections officers de-escalate difficult encounters with mental health patients. Six Maine counties use the program, including York, Androscoggin and Penobscot, but Mehnert and Joyce disagree on the extent to which Cumberland County participates in the training.

Joyce said the broader issue is that jails are not set up to treat mental health patients, but four out of every five people in the jail have either a mental illness, substance use disorder or a combination of both.

“We are the default mental health system,” especially after business hours, Joyce said.


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