This story contains adult language and may not be suitable for young readers.
Six years ago, a young, female inmate at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor had an unexpected turn of good fate. She was going to get out earlier than she had expected. A jail guard had given her a job that came with the most coveted benefit: For every day she did the jail’s laundry, she would get a certain amount of time off her sentence.
But the woman, who had been in the jail before, did not anticipate that the guard, Corporal Steven Buzzell, would use the isolated laundry room to ask her sexual questions, show her naked pictures of himself and then make her touch his erect penis, she said. Nor did Carla, which is not her real name, expect his unwanted sexual attention to follow her after her release, in the form of several explicit photos and numerous messages asking to get together — something she described as “a whole other sentence.”
A different corrections officer said he and other guards knew that Buzzell, a supervisor, exploited his position of authority over female inmates for sexual purposes, particularly those who were likely to return and, therefore, too afraid to report him and lose his goodwill. It was also widely known among jail staff that Buzzell sent women, including his female colleagues, unsolicited pictures of what they assumed to be his penis, said the officer and several others.
But most people stayed silent for years, and the behavior continued.
The allegations came to light over the course of a months-long investigation by the Bangor Daily News that included interviews with several dozen people with knowledge of the jail. Many of them described how they or those they knew struggled with whether to report the alleged conduct.
Like many stories, this one began with a tip.
It is often difficult for people to disclose sexual misconduct in general, but the dynamics in a jail can make it even more challenging. Guards described not wanting to be ostracized at work, especially because they depend on their colleagues for their safety. Others became desensitized and accepted their environment, or became jaded about the possibility of change. Inmates, meanwhile, said the potential risks of officially reporting harm outweighed any benefit.
“A lot of people know but just turn a blind eye,” said one current jail employee about other guards.
“They’re in an over-glorified position of power, and they use it. They use it against us,” said a former inmate.
Ultimately, people did report Buzzell, 39, of Corinth, to Sheriff Troy Morton, who said that all reports of sexual misconduct are investigated immediately. Outside of work, guards are prohibited from contacting anyone with a felony record, even a family member, and reaching out to former inmates for sexual purposes is “greatly discouraged,” Morton said, describing it as just “common-sense thinking.”
The rule is tricky to enforce, however, and getting people to report suspicious behavior often requires them to violate a very human tendency to protect one’s group — or, as one corrections officer put it, to break “the sacred trust.” Officers know any response will be limited to the evidence at hand, which may simply be one person’s word over another’s. These are just some of the reasons why experts don’t advise workplaces to rely primarily or solely on formal victim complaints to correct harassment.
Buzzell resigned June 28. He is still eligible to work as a corrections officer and part-time law enforcement officer.
When reached by phone and asked why he left his job, Buzzell said, “I’d rather not be in this conversation. I’ve moved on with my life,” before ending the call abruptly. He later declined a second interview request and did not respond to a voicemail left Nov. 1, nor a text sent Nov. 28, outlining the allegations in this story, which is the result of about four months of reporting.
The BDN spoke with four former inmates, four current and former jail employees, and one jail volunteer who said they received or saw explicit images from Buzzell. An additional jail volunteer didn’t receive images but said Buzzell sent her inappropriate messages. During the BDN’s reporting, two of those people decided to speak to the sheriff, who opened an investigation. It is ongoing.
In addition to the 10 people who said they had direct knowledge of Buzzell’s actions, 11 others had corroborating information. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent retaliation, and protect their safety and employment. Their life experiences often differed greatly: Some are former inmates who were homeless when they spoke to the BDN, and one returned to jail after being interviewed. Others are professionals, including an attorney and a Bangor city councilor. But they all shared similar knowledge. And all but two are women.
‘I was really floored’
Gazing at the jail from the parking lot in the winter of 2017, Clare Davitt couldn’t tell exactly where inside the large, brick building the new library was going to be. The Bangor Public Library reference librarian had just toured the building, but, once outside, lost her sense of where each windowless hallway had been.
Davitt was helping to expand the jail’s library, something she’d long wanted to do. In the nearly two decades since her college days, when she taught classes at a youth prison in another state, she had even toyed with the idea of becoming a jail librarian.
After her tour of the jail, Davitt met with Buzzell a couple times to prepare the library. He was friendly, like most of the other guards she met, and excited that she planned to add more nonfiction and skill-building books to the jail’s thin selection of “basically romance novels with their covers torn off,” she said.
In his position, Buzzell oversaw inmate programming and acted as a liaison to outside organizations such as Davitt’s. A long-time corrections officer who started working at the jail in 2003, he also controlled the “good time” inmates earned to get time off their sentence by doing jobs in and around the jail.
But over time Davitt became uneasy with Buzzell’s casual and flirtatious manner toward both her and the female inmates who helped move and organize the new library books, she said.
She was especially uncomfortable during a morning in either May or June of 2017, she said, when she and Buzzell spent several hours putting the library together at the jail, color coding books by their genre. Because he is relatively short in height, Buzzell joked as they worked that “not everything is small,” Davitt said, and told her he’d had to take sexual harassment training.
“‘Oh, it didn’t take,’” she said she replied, trying to joke through her discomfort. She didn’t know him well, she said; she was working, and the conversation was unsettling.
Later, looking back, she struggled with the fact that she didn’t say something. But there were no threats, and she didn’t feel unsafe. When would have been the obvious moment to call him out? As a number of women said, sometimes the time never came.
Then, in the late summer or early fall of 2017, she was astounded to find Buzzell had sent her a looped video of an erect penis over Facebook Messenger. “I was really floored,” she said. It was “shocking and gross.”
She recalled seeing it on her phone and closing it immediately, opening it again only to delete the message so it wouldn’t re-appear each time she opened Facebook. She told Buzzell not to send such inappropriate messages.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you’d think it was funny,” was his response, she said. He did not say whether the image was of himself, and he did not send another image.
Several months later, in November 2017, Davitt was elected to the Bangor City Council. Into the following year, she wrestled with whether to report Buzzell and confided in three separate people: her roommate, her boyfriend and fellow Bangor City Councilor Ben Sprague.
Like other women who spoke to the BDN, doubt crept in. She wondered if anyone would believe her, especially since she couldn’t immediately retrieve the message. (A Facebook spokeswoman said law enforcement could ask that Facebook retrieve the photos and “see what else can be done.”) She also said she found herself downplaying what had happened: Maybe it was no big deal. And, if she reported him, what would happen to the jail’s library program or the library’s relationship with the jail?
At the time, she decided to stay quiet.
Her case is not unusual, given that most people do not report harassment at work. Only a quarter to a third report it to a supervisor or union representative, and just 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint, according to a summary of available research. In comparison, most people try to ignore, forget or endure the behavior.
Davitt still had to coordinate with Buzzell occasionally, however, and emailed him from work on Jan. 18, 2018, to see if the jail wanted more books. By this point she had been an elected official for about two months. He wrote back eight minutes later: “Im doing fan fn tastic. Lol Hows the political world treating you? I will take anything you ever give me, books included.”
Davitt let the sexual innuendo go and steered the conversation back to the books, according to a record of the exchange shared with the BDN. She deleted additional, flirtatious emails, she said, and later learned they could not be restored due to the library’s various server crashes.
Arrian Stockdell, Davitt’s boyfriend, said Buzzell “was just repeatedly taking it to places that made her uncomfortable and then trying to get away with it through [an] ‘it’s-just-a-joke’ kind of attitude.”
Sprague, the other Bangor city councilor, said he encouraged Davitt to contact the county commissioners, who oversee the jail’s operations, and even introduced her to Commissioner Peter Baldacci via email on Feb. 21, though he didn’t mention the specific situation. Sprague didn’t know Buzzell’s name because Davitt didn’t tell him, he said, but he knew the man was the jail’s liaison for the library program, and this made him worry about the inmates in his charge.
“The way she described it made me think there’s a predatory person in a position where he’s in control of other people. … My head immediately went to female prisoners,” Sprague said. “I thought, if Clare doesn’t want to take legal action herself, and maybe that’s super complicated … she should at least put this on other people’s radar.”
Davitt did not tell Baldacci. But the matter, it turned out, was already on the radar of another woman with a different professional connection to the jail, who also knew Buzzell through an educational program for inmates. Buzzell never sent her an explicit image, the woman told the BDN, but, after they first met in 2017, his emails and particularly his messages through Facebook became flirtatious to the point where she had to confront him.
“I just remember saying, ‘Don’t go there. That’s not appropriate,’” said the woman, who spoke anonymously to protect her organization.
When Rebecca started working at the jail almost a decade ago, the hardest part of the job was not having the power to walk out when she wanted to. “When you work there, you’re effectively locked in, like an inmate,” she said.
Rebecca, which is not her real name, appreciated the good benefits, though, and the job security, she said; people would always commit crimes. And she came to find her work rewarding, especially when former inmates told her she had made a difference in their lives.
So she was aghast when she received a text from an unknown number about a year after she started working, she said, and opened it to see a picture of a man’s penis. It was a downward view, with the man’s pants and underwear around his ankles.
She hadn’t been at the jail long, but she suspected Buzzell had sent it because he had a reputation among the guards for sending lewd pictures, she said. She confirmed it was him by looking up his phone number on an employee roster, where she assumed he also got her number.
“I was disgusted,” she said. “I actually had to ask myself, ‘Did I do something to make him think that I would be interested in this?’ And I hadn’t.”
When she told him in person to stop, “he kind of laughed it off,” she said, and “over the years he would occasionally send me more.”
She estimated she received about six pictures of what she assumed was his penis over at least seven years, through text and social media, all of which “arrived out of the blue,” she said. She deleted them because she didn’t want other people to see them on her phone. They angered her each time and, until Buzzell was promoted to corporal in 2012, prompted her to rearrange her work schedule when she could, so she wouldn’t be near him in the facility, she said.
The last text she received from Buzzell was in the fall of 2017, she said. Knowing what it might contain, she didn’t want to open it, she said. A male jail employee, who was nearby, asked if he could. Though she refused to look, she couldn’t help overhearing what played next. It was a video of a woman performing sex on herself with objects, the male employee told the BDN.
After years of repeatedly rebuffing Buzzell, Rebecca eventually told some of her colleagues what was happening, but she never reported him to jail administrators, she said.
Doing so would have broken a silent rule — another lesson she learned during her first year on the job: Don’t tell on your coworkers.
“If you rat your coworkers out, basically you’ll be alienated. And in that work environment, you don’t want to be alienated,” she said. “These people are potentially there to help save your life in any particular situation, in any day.”
In addition to the male employee, the BDN spoke to three others who said Rebecca had told them about Buzzell sending her explicit images.
One of them, whom the BDN is not naming to protect her job at the jail, said it was widely known among corrections officers that Buzzell sent people inappropriate pictures. Some colleagues “egged him on” but also joked among themselves to never open an email attachment from him, she said.
A second woman, a former guard, said Buzzell also sent her several photos of what she assumed was his penis. They arrived over Facebook Messenger, both during and after she stopped working at the jail in 2011. The most recent picture she received was in 2016.
“He would just randomly send them. I had to block him on Facebook at least four times,” the former guard said, adding that she deleted the photos. “I’ve blocked him forever now.”
The former guard didn’t report him because she didn’t feel threatened, she said, and guards “handled everything on our own.”
She added, “It had come to a point where we all just knew that was the way he was.”
In fact, the more someone has a reputation for harassing behavior, the less likely a woman is to speak out, Jennifer Berdahl, of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, told The New York Times. “It’s natural to conclude that if he’s been getting away with this for a long time, then the organization tolerates it, so why become the problem yourself by going to H.R.?” she said.
‘Using his position of power’
One male corrections officer who spoke to the BDN said he was part of the culture of silence.
The jail is an inherently depressing place to be, whether people are staff or inmates, said the guard, whom the BDN is not naming to protect his job. Witnessing inmates cutting themselves or attempting suicide, and dealing with people with extensive traumatic histories — who end up in the facility again and again — forces corrections officers to adapt and harden.
It’s an especially difficult environment for the minority of female staff who are working with mostly male guards and inmates, he said.
“It’s an atmosphere. It’s the way the guys are,” he said.
All guards have control over inmates, the male employee said, but Buzzell held special power over so-called inmate helpers — who earn time off their sentences by doing jobs at the jail — that he wielded for his benefit.
“What [Buzzell] would do is use his position to set up a situation when he got out. He was using his position of power,” the male jail employee said.
He and several other guards occasionally got together outside of work, and Buzzell bragged about “all these inmates that he’d been hooking up with,” the corrections officer said. He said Buzzell showed them pictures on his phone of female genitalia and said some of the images were of former inmates — particularly women who returned to the jail frequently — though the employee didn’t have a way to identify those women.
The corrections officer remembered the names of two inmates Buzzell said he contacted, and the BDN confirmed with both of the women directly that Buzzell had interacted with them after their release. One of the women, however, denied that she had a sexual arrangement with Buzzell, and said she was friends with him before she became an inmate at the jail.
A few times, the male employee told Buzzell he should stop making sexual advances toward colleagues and inmates, he said. But Buzzell responded by minimizing the situation, according to the employee, telling him, “‘I’ve got a 50-50 chance. All they’ve got to do is say no.’”
Buzzell also routinely sent male jail staff lewd images of women. “He did a picture of the day, or a video of the day,” the jail employee said. A few times he told Buzzell to stop sending them, but mostly he just deleted them, he said.
The jail’s policies require staff, volunteers and even student interns to report sexual misconduct. Those who fail “to take appropriate steps” are “subject to appropriate action, up to possible criminal prosecution.”
In the end it was a male corrections officer who reported Buzzell to a new human resources director at the jail, according to four current and former jail employees. The report in the spring triggered another one to the county commissioners, said Baldacci, a long-time commissioner and current chairman.
Baldacci couldn’t provide details about the complaint but said it had to do with Buzzell’s “commentary” and “behavior.” At the meeting where commissioners learned of the allegations, Morton, the sheriff, said he would immediately investigate and did, Baldacci said.
It’s not clear whether the investigation reached a finding. Buzzell resigned June 28, several weeks after the sheriff’s office investigation began.
“Going forward it was important that others got the message,” Baldacci said.
At the same time, he acknowledged the cultural difficulty of overcoming a “protect the team” mentality. “I think it requires extra vigilance. It comes down to the supervisors, the sergeants,” he said.
In addition, it’s important for people to have a “neutral person” to turn to, he said. The jail plans to fill the currently vacant human resources director position next year.
“We know the importance of that,” Baldacci said. “That’s what got people to open up a little bit.”
There are many things that experts and researchers say employers can do to address and prevent mistreatment. In addition to making sure there are people whom employees feel comfortable going to, other possibilities include hiring an ombudsman, promoting more women to positions of power, training people not necessarily in what not to do but how to speak up as a bystander, and making sure there are proportional consequences for varying types of behavior.
In interviews, several jail employees and inmates who knew about the investigation questioned why Buzzell wasn’t fired. Because of union rules, it’s not possible for the sheriff to fire employees directly, Baldacci said. Instead, the sheriff has to make the recommendation to the commissioners, who can then accept it. If employees resign ahead of that process, it’s not possible to fire them retroactively.
Sylvia Hebert, the AFSCME Council 93 union representative for the jail’s supervisors unit, declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Buzzell’s resignation.
Employees who resign are able to get another job in corrections. The process for revoking an officer’s certification starts only after a law enforcement agency has completed an internal investigation into the employee and found that the officer violated one of the de-certifiable offenses established in Maine law, nearly all of which are crimes, according to John Rogers, director of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which handles certifications.
Buzzell, who hasn’t been charged with a crime, is currently certified to work as a corrections officer and part-time law enforcement officer until June 28, 2020, according to the academy. Officers are required to get recertified once they stop working in corrections for two years.
In the fall, more people came forward to report Buzzell’s behavior to the sheriff.
After inquiries from the BDN, both Davitt and the other jail volunteer, who said she received inappropriate Facebook messages, decided to call Morton. On Oct. 3, more than a year after the alleged inappropriate behavior began and after Buzzell had resigned, they separately informed the sheriff of their experiences.
Morton said the matter is under investigation. While he declined to specify whether the investigation is internal, criminal or both, or provide details about the inquiry, he said, “I can say any time that information is brought forward that it’s investigated seriously.”
People often don’t report sexual misconduct out of fear of retaliation — and for good reason, according to research. One study of public-sector workers found that two-thirds of those who reported mistreatment likely experienced some form of retaliation.
The jail volunteer who spoke to Morton, however, said she came away feeling supported. He was “appreciative but mortified,” she said, and “apologized profusely, provided some explanation of procedures they’d put in place to stop this, making sure it was not part of their culture.”
“He is addressing it in ways that are direct and swift, and, from my experience just with a tremendous amount of concern and empathy,” she said.
After the new reports, the jail reached out to other volunteers at the facility to invite them to share any information, Morton said, though he declined to say whether they responded.
He also said the jail made sure supervisors received additional education by bringing in lawyers to talk about sexual harassment.
It’s important for people to “see through leadership that [disrespecting women is] not tolerated. We have clear and accurate policies in place, and provide proper training,” Morton said.
In 2016, the jail started the process of participating in the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which sets standards for how facilities should respond to sexual misconduct, he said. The jail is planning for its first audit under the requirements, to ensure compliance.
The new guidelines are intended to make it easier for inmates to report sexual misconduct. But policies can only do so much. Often they aren’t as powerful as people’s trepidation. And inmates in particular face even more barriers to speaking up than people in the free world.
Fear kept one woman formerly incarcerated at the Penobscot County Jail from sharing her story until now.
‘A whole other sentence’
For Carla, the jail became a familiar place. She was first arrested in 2006, and returned multiple times in the following years for a series of theft- and drug-related convictions. She came to know the various blocks, when different employees had their shifts, and who was nice and who wasn’t. Buzzell was one of the nice guards, she said.
Sometimes she appreciated the lighter mood he created, but occasionally he made comments that were too flirtatious, she said. He told her, for instance, that the inmate uniform wasn’t usually flattering, but it looked great on her, she said.
She relied on Buzzell and other guards for her overall health and safety, but in 2012 Buzzell came to fill what may have been an even more important role: He could get her out early. And he wanted to help, granting Carla one of the best “inmate helper” jobs: doing the jail’s laundry.
In the laundry room, she washed and folded jumpsuits and other clothes, often having to stick half her body in the industrial-sized washers and dryers. Buzzell brought her cookies and other treats, which she sometimes snuck back to the other female inmates.
But as Buzzell spent more time in the laundry room, Carla said, he often brought up the subject of sex. He asked her what happened between the female inmates or if she would ever fool around in jail, she said. Sometimes, he asked her to talk dirty to him, which she said she avoided by stalling and trying to laugh.
“I was just really, really uncomfortable with doing that,” she said.
She was even more uncomfortable because, at that time, there was no camera in the laundry room, she said.
Another former inmate who did laundry that year also said there was no camera. Former Sheriff Glenn Ross, who retired at the end of 2014, said the room didn’t have a camera before he added one, but he didn’t know the year. Morton didn’t know, either.
Carla recalled Buzzell’s advances intensifying over time.
For instance, when she required more laundry items, or clothes got ruined, she had to write down what needed to be replenished. She would hand the lists, written in pencil on brown paper towels, to Buzzell. After a few times, she said, he expressed disappointment that she never wrote “anything good or fun.”
Over time his pestering made her nervous. So, even though “it’s not really something I’m good at,” she said, she tried writing something sexual. She didn’t remember what, exactly, she put down, but she was surprised when Buzzell came back from what she assumed was the bathroom with a picture of his erect penis to show her, she said. It happened at least three different times.
“The whole point of the notes was he was asking me to help him be in a position to do that,” she said.
One time, he went even further, forcing her hand onto his erection, she said. Another day, he came up behind her when she was leaning over the counter to fold the men’s jumpsuits, and put his hand around her waist to try to put his hand down her pants, she said.
“I just slid my body away,” she said, and he stopped.
There were nights, after she was done with work, when she would lie in bed and cry, she said, describing the acts as “a major, major violation.” It’s not legally possible for inmates to consent.
The memory is still painful. During her interview with the BDN, Carla stood up abruptly, excusing herself and wiping her eyes, as she walked away for a break.
The stakes of reporting Buzzell’s alleged conduct were different for Carla, an inmate, than for Buzzell’s coworkers. For one, she didn’t want to lose her laundry position and spend more time in jail. But she similarly felt as if she could never tell. Who would believe her?
“We know enough about how the human brain works that there’s always a danger when you let one group of people control another group of people,” said Thea Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law who specializes in criminal justice.
Inmates, she continued, “feel very, very powerless in the face of abuse. We see it over and over again in prisons. That’s why abuse happens in such a rampant way because inmates tend not to report it.”
But Carla did tell a friend about what happened in the laundry room. The BDN is not naming her to avoid identifying Carla. The friend, who has known Carla since she was a teenager, said she tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal, but “if you know someone as well as I know her, it’s just, her face — it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth,” she said.
“It’s a funny spot to be in because you don’t want to make waves. You want to stand up for yourself, but you feel repercussions. It’s a terrible place to be. And then you blame yourself and beat yourself up,” the friend said.
Finally, Carla was able to leave the jail. But then, she said, Buzzell appeared on her phone.
He contacted her almost immediately, Carla said, messaging her through Facebook either that night or the day after her release. She didn’t remember what, exactly, he wrote, but it soon became clear he wanted to see her.
“I remember very, very quickly it’s, ‘When do I get to see you?’ That was always a question that was asked,” she said. She never agreed to get together, she said, but he kept writing to her through Facebook Messenger. At one point he allegedly messaged to say he was driving by her place, and all he needed was five minutes; they could fit in his backseat.
She hadn’t told him her address, she said, and assumed he got it off her bail paperwork.
He sent “message after message,” but “I’m not responding because I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I was on probation, using drugs.”
He also allegedly sent several pictures of an erect penis that she assumed was his. “I’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re a pig; get a life,’” she said. “I don’t know whatever stopped me from being a flat-out bitch and just being, ‘Would you just stop?’”
“That was like a whole other sentence, having to deal with that every single day,” she said.
She still has his cell phone number in her contacts — the same cell phone number the BDN used to speak to Buzzell. But she deleted all of the messages, not wanting to have a loved one find them or have the images surface on different devices.
She did show her friend one of the images, however, who said she remembered seeing Buzzell’s name pop up. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I couldn’t help myself but to look, but I didn’t study them, let’s just say that,” the friend said.
Other former inmates said it was common knowledge that Buzzell tried to develop inappropriate relationships.
“He’s taking advantage of women,” said a former inmate who knew the name of an additional woman Buzzell sent explicit photos to after she got out of jail. The BDN confirmed the account with the woman directly, though she declined to share details publicly to avoid potential retribution. An additional former inmate whom she confided in described the exact scenario the woman had faced without being prompted to discuss it by the BDN.
Many of the women who agreed to interviews spoke about the inherent and vast power imbalance between inmates and guards, and how it leads to silence. “You know what you have to do in there, you know? Laws aren’t the same in there,” said one former inmate. They described trying to get or remain drug free, often while raising children, and about the guilt they carry.
Some said they felt bad talking about Buzzell. They, themselves, know what it feels like when others don’t see their humanity.
In the same way, female guards shared frustration about their mostly male colleagues, who seemed to not always recognize, or care, when they had crossed a line.
In at least one case, a female jail employee and inmate — Carla — bonded, in part over their shared experience at the jail. This jail employee knew Buzzell had messaged Carla when she was out, “basically always hitting on her, wanting to hook up,” she said. (An additional guard knew the same.)
It was no surprise to the jail employee, who had also received a message from Buzzell before he became a corporal, she said: It was an image of a penis. At the time, she was in the car with her children.
“I happened to look at my phone. ‘Oh, shit. Not ready for that.’ Just, in his hand,” the jail employee said. “It was at attention,” she continued. “Zipper, hand, full attention.”
As her shock gave way, she found herself attempting to right a bizarre situation she hadn’t created. She tried to joke — telling him “to put the weapon away,” she said — and didn’t tell her superiors. But she was more troubled than she let on.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.