Lawmakers to investigate pepper-spraying of Windham prisoner

Posted March 25, 2013, at 5:17 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of a legislative committee Wednesday will ask state corrections officials to explain an incident last year in which a prison supervisor pepper-sprayed an inmate at close range while the inmate was held down in a restraint chair. The incident occurred at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

The Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said the committee’s session with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte and others from the state Department of Corrections will allow committee members — especially those new to the Legislature — to learn about the use of the restraint chair and chemical agents in Maine prisons after the high-profile incident.

Gerzofsky said Monday he’s long been uneasy with the use of restraint chairs in Maine prisons.

“It’s not to be used as punishment,” Gerzofsky said. “It’s only to be used to calm a situation down.”

The incident, after which the prison supervisor was suspended for 30 days, came to light earlier this month when the Portland Press Herald obtained a video of the incident and related confidential documents. The newspaper published the video and a series of articles.

The video of the June 10, 2012, incident published by the Portland newspaper shows a group of prison guards removing inmate Paul Schlosser III from his cell — a practice known as a cell extraction — then binding Schlosser’s arms and legs to a restraint chair before they wheel him to a separate section of the prison for medical treatment.

Schlosser had recently returned from the hospital where he was treated for serious, self-inflicted wounds on his left arm. He was placed under watch in a special section of the Maine Correctional Center after his return. Following prison practice, much of his time in that segregated unit was recorded on video because of the possibility it could lead to a situation requiring the use of force, Ponte said in an interview Monday.

During his time under special watch, Schlosser removed the dressing from his wounds. When he subsequently refused to go to the medical unit to have his wound rebandaged, prison guards went into his cell to remove him in handcuffs, bind him to the restraint chair and wheel him to the medical unit.

Once there, Capt. Shawn Welch, the supervisor in charge, pepper-sprayed Schlosser at close range — within about 18 inches — after the inmate resisted prison guards trying to reposition him in the restraint chair. The video shows Schlosser in major discomfort, complaining that he can’t breathe, after he was sprayed. He wasn’t allowed in the shower to wash off the pepper spray for 24 minutes.

During that time, Welch walked in and out of the medical cell holding the pepper spray canister, telling Schlosser to change his behavior and follow the orders of prison staff he had resisted in recent days. At one point, a prison guard put a spit mask on Schlosser, which intensified his pain, after the inmate tried to spit out the pepper spray and spit on one of the prison officers.

An investigator reviewed the incident after it happened and recommended Welch be fired. Ponte and Maine Correctional Center Superintendent Scott Burnheimer said Monday they initially agreed with the investigator’s recommendation and Burnheimer drafted a termination letter for Welch, who has worked in the state prison system for more than 20 years.

However, Burnheimer and Ponte later spoke with Welch separately and decided to downgrade his punishment to a 30-day suspension, which the captain served in late August and September.

“It was obvious to us and to me he took full responsibility for his actions,” Ponte said. “It was a one-shot deal. He assured me it would never happen again.”

To suspend a supervisor was unusual, Ponte said. But since the incident, Welch has returned to work without incident. In addition, he has reviewed research on more effective ways to handle similar incidents.

“This clearly was unusual and a break with practice and policy,” Burnheimer said. “The captain, for a few short minutes, made poor decisions. I know he regrets that to this day.”

Ponte said staff in Maine prisons last fall received training from the Connecticut Department of Correction in techniques to help them manage inmates who injure themselves, often as a way to get something from prison staff in exchange. The training is already paying off, Ponte said. Staff are using the chair less often and cell extractions are increasingly rare.

Burnheimer said prison staff meet regularly to discuss how best to address inmates considered most likely to injure themselves, resist staff and end up separated from the general population. They tailor plans to specific inmates in hopes of keeping those inmates from injuring themselves, he said, rather than using a standardized set of responses.

“Everybody’s different,” he said. “There’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”

Gerzofsky said the incident at the Maine Correctional Center became personal between Welch and Schlosser.

“It’s never to become personal between an officer and an inmate,” Gerzofsky said.

The Department of Corrections is now investigating the source of the leak to determine how the video and confidential records were released to the media. Ponte said the department needs to ensure confidential information about inmates and personnel doesn’t become public.

“Obviously, it was not handled well at the facility level,” Ponte said. “That information should not have been so loosely held.”

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