Maine officials seeking pepper-spray video leak
(PORTLAND PRESS HERALD) The Maine Department of Corrections is investigating to determine how the press obtained video and documents about a captain’s treatment of an inmate last year.
The video and related documents recount how Capt. Shawn Welch, an official at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, used pepper spray on an inmate who was bound in a restraint chair, then left him in distress for more than 20 minutes. A story about the incident appeared in this week’s Maine Sunday Telegram.
Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the medium- and minimum-security prison, fired Welch over the incident, but that decision was overruled by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who gave Welch a 30-day suspension, according to the documents and interviews.
The newspaper story and video posted on the paper’s website led the chairmen of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee to seek a review of the incident.
The committee plans to review the incident in the context of the department’s experience with use of force and its policies for investigations, said Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland.
It asked the Corrections Department Wednesday to provide data on the prisons’ use of force and investigations, and plans to have the department’s leadership discuss that data and the incident with legislators on March 27.
The Department of Corrections has assigned an investigator to determine how the information got out.
“Your possession of that indicates a breach of security on our part and we absolutely do need to look into that,” said Associate Commissioner Jody Breton. “We certainly will be tightening up security — where (information) is stored, who has access.”
Breton said the probe is not being conducted because the story and video cast the department in a poor light, but because it revealed private information about an inmate.
Advocates for prisoners and for corrections officers criticized the investigation.
“The use of the department’s resources should be going into training of their staff and officers and management so this kind of incident doesn’t happen again,” said Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “Trying to find out how the information got into the hands of a reporter shows a reluctance to have transparency. It reeks of government heavy-handedness in oversight.
“Certainly, the inmate’s right to privacy should be respected. There’s always a fine line between (that and) what the public needs to know to keep abuse and tragedy from happening,” Garvey said. “We feel the department itself is probably not the best arbiter of that kind of decision,”
Garvey said the coalition favors having a citizens group of prisoner advocates working with the department.
James Mackie, spokesman for the union that represents corrections officers, said he is not surprised that the department is investigating.
“The number of investigations since (Ponte) has taken over have just increased exponentially,” he said.
Mackie said he was surprised that the incident, which happened on June 10, took so long to come to light. Welch was disciplined in August and September.
“We were all aware of the issue at MCC. There was no way it was going to be kept secret,” Mackie said.
Breton said she does not know whether investigations have increased under Ponte.
The newspaper’s story and the accompanying video offered a rare glimpse inside the prison and into a confrontation between officers and a medicated, mentally ill inmate.
Paul Schlosser had received hospital treatment for a gouge he inflicted on his left arm, but had repeatedly removed the dressing in an effort to get medication and a book to distract him.
Inmates who hurt themselves to manipulate staff are among the most difficult to deal with, Ponte said last week.
Officers restrained Schlosser in a restraint chair so the medical staff could treat his arm, because he refused to go to the medical unit voluntarily.
When one officer pinned his head to the chair, Schlosser struggled and spit at an officer. Welch sprayed him at close range with pepper spray, called OC spray, from a canister intended to be used on multiple people at a distance of 18 to 20 feet, according to an investigator’s report.
Welch then refused to let Schlosser, who said he couldn’t breathe, wash his face for 24 minutes. A spit mask was placed over Schlosser’s mouth and nose, trapping the pepper spray against his face.
An investigation concluded that Welch’s use of force was excessive and motivated in part by personal animosity.
Burnheimer fired Welch and denied his appeal, saying he had discussed it with Ponte, according to department documents.
But Ponte said last week that Welch was never actually fired.