Jail guard sues Androscoggin County, sheriff over suspension

Posted Aug. 15, 2013, at 7:59 a.m.

AUBURN, Maine — A jail guard is suing Androscoggin County and its sheriff for what he claims was an unfair suspension following a use of force incident at the jail last year.

Corrections Officer Shane Thomas has filed a suit claiming that as a result of the suspension, he continues to suffer professional and personal injuries, including lost wages and benefits, as well as emotional distress, mental anguish and damage to his professional reputation.

According to court documents, on Nov. 4, Thomas was assigned to the day shift as acting corporal between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. While Thomas was on duty, an altercation occurred involving a maximum security inmate, Thomas and two guards under his command.

According to written accounts of the incident, a 27-year old inmate being held on a charge of aggravated assault refused to wear his jail uniform, causing a disruption at the lock-up. According to a document from Thomas’ lawyer, the situation escalated quickly as inmate Shane Edwards, of Lewiston, confronted the guards and Thomas in particular.

“C.O. Thomas was confronted with a situation where Edwards refused to wear his jail uniform, tried to slam a heavy door on C.O. Thomas to injure him, refused to open his cell door, and repeatedly threatened C.O. Thomas and his family with harm,” according to a letter to the Androscoggin County Commissioners from attorney John W. Chapman. “All of these things are violation of the jail rules. One of them is also the crime of assault.”

According to court documents, Edwards was secured after the guards threatened to use pepper spray. While the inmate was being led to a holding cell, he again began to struggle and fight with Thomas, despite being restrained by handcuffs.

Edwards “went to the floor, and while he was not escaping, still he continued to fight against the officers,” Chapman wrote in his letter to the commission. “C.O. Thomas administered what he described as a ‘softening blow’ to the side of Edwards’ head. Edwards immediately stopped fighting… No more blows were administered and Edwards was taken to the cell without further incident. He was examined by medical personnel and found to be uninjured.”

But Edwards later filed a complaint with the jail, a complaint that was forwarded to the Auburn Police Department for investigation.

The District Attorney’s Office interviewed Edwards as part of their investigation. Ultimately, they found that the actions of Thomas were justified. Nonetheless, Thomas was suspended, which forms the basis of the lawsuit.

“The Sheriff’s Department has many rules and regulations,” Chapman writes, “but none that prohibit striking with a fist or striking an inmate in the head.”

On Jan. 22, after the D.A.’s Office announced its decision, Desjardins called Thomas into a meeting. He then announced that Thomas would be suspended for three days without pay. The suspension ran Jan. 25 through 27.

Thomas returned to work and continues to work at the jail.

At the meeting, Desjardins also presented Thomas with a letter, chastising him for his handling of the incident with Edwards. The sheriff’s stance was that Thomas delivered a hard blow to the inmate’s head while the inmate was secure on the floor with his hands cuffed behind his back.

In his letter, Desjardins explained that Thomas’ action was a violation of the jails use of force and restraint policy, writing that force should be employed only to the degree necessary to control the offender with minimum hard to both staff and inmate.

“Other options were available to you within the use of force continuum other than a hard blow to the head,” Desjardins wrote.

The disciplinary action against Thomas also included a letter of reprimand placed in his personnel file and a 90 day probation period. Thomas was also ordered to under go remedial training in use of force and restraints.

On Wednesday, Desjardins stood by his decision to suspend Thomas for the incident. Once the inmate was down on the floor, in cuffs, the additional blow to the head constituted a clear violation of jail policy, the sheriff said.

“Once you’ve controlled the situation, you have to back off,” Desjardins said. “I consider this an assault and that’s something I cannot tolerate. We need to make sure our facility is safe, not just for the staff, but for the inmates, as well.”

In preparation for the suit, Chapman, of Kelly and Chapman in Portland, has advised that he plans to call as witnesses several current or former jail guards. He has also requested documentation detailing past incidents at the jail involving use of force.

In the suit, Chapman stresses that Desjardins reported the incident to a pair of outside agencies, the Auburn Police Department first and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy second.

That’s a fact, Desjardins said. He called in Auburn police on the matter because it is standard procedure to have an outside agency investigate these types of police. Reporting it to the Justice Academy, Desjardins said, is something he is required to do by law.

On Wednesday night, Desjardins said he has since suspended other jail officers for incident similar to that which occurred between Thomas and Edwards. Set to retire at the end of next year, Desjardins said he’ll continue to discipline guards who, in his opinion, have violated the use of force rules at the jail.

“As long as I’m here,” the sheriff said, “that’s behavior that I’m not going to tolerate.”

The attorney representing the county and the sheriff is listed as Bryan Dench, of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott in Auburn.

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