Monday, March 18, 2013

Excessive Force in Maine Prisons: A Bounty of Isolated Incidents

Maine inmate Paul Schlosser is pepper sprayed while restrained, excessive force
Screen shot of the video from Portland Press Herald
Local reporter David Hench at the Portland Press Herald wrote a great piece this weekend about Maine State Prison inmate Paul Schlosser. Officers bound Paul in a restraint chair and then pepper sprayed him in the face. There is a video and the sprayer, Capt. Shawn Welch, was terminated after internal review. His appeal was denied, but he was then reinstated by the Commissioner of Corrections himself. Hench writes today that the case and the prison's use of force will now get a closer look.


The Maine Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee will be reviewing the case, as Hench writes: "to ensure it is an aberration and not an ongoing practice." I'm interested to watch the review process, there are some good people on that committee including Mark Dion, the House chair. Dion is a lawyer (he was in my law school class) and former Sheriff of Cumberland County. He ran the County Jail for many years so he knows the work of corrections and the potential for abuse the power dynamic creates.

While I am glad that the case will get a closer look, I'm not optimistic. Those of us who do Criminal Defense work, hear stories of needlessly harsh treatment all the time. Though the vast majority of police are good people, that doesn't mean that abuses are rare. When issues do come to light, it's rare that any real progress is made. The inherent problem is that it's the criminal's word against the cop. It is only the isolated incident where we have some independent documentation. Those cases are rare indeed.

So god's speed to the Criminal Justice Committee. If they set sail in search of an "aberration" that's just what they'll find. If they do the hard work, they might discover that this case is just the tip of the iceberg and the real aberration is the fact that the video went public.

Here's the footage the Press Herald ran: 


Update: All this as the legislature is set to take up LD 352 a bill that would prohibit prisoners from filing for civil protection from harassment orders against corrections employees. Public hearing before the Maine Legislature is set for 2:30pm on Thursday 3/21/13. Members of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition will be there to speak in opposition. You can check out their site for news on that bill and other Maine prisoner rights issues.