December 6, 2013

Maine prisoner files claim over pepper-spray incident

The prison controversy led to policy changes and a ‘teachable moment’ for prison personnel.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A state prisoner who was pepper-sprayed while confined to a restraint chair and then left to suffer for more than 20 minutes has filed a notice of claim against the state and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham for injuries he says he sustained in the incident.

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Paul Schlosser III is restrained after being removed from his cell.

Image from video

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Watch the video of the incident

Watch the video of the incident involving Paul Schlosser III.

Meanwhile, in the nine months since the Maine Sunday Telegram reported on the incident, the department has changed a number of policies and is in the process of hiring two investigators for a new internal affairs unit, a spokeswoman said.

Paul Schlosser III, who is serving seven years for robbery, is currently at the Maine State Prison in Warren, where his attorney says he can obtain better mental health treatment than at the Windham facility.

In the notice of claim filed Nov. 12, Schlosser’s attorney, C. Donald Briggs III, says he represents Schlosser “with respect to injuries sustained on June 10, 2012” and asks that the matter be referred to the state’s insurance company. The notice is not technically a lawsuit, but is intended to preserve Schlosser’s right to sue.

“The behavior was completely outrageous,” Briggs said Thursday of the officers’ treatment of his client. “It was completely unjustified.” Briggs said a video of the encounter that accompanied the newspaper story brought the incident to light. “It’s very difficult to even watch the video. It’s just terrible.”

Briggs said Schlosser did not suffer any lasting physical injuries.

“For a period of time, he had just an incredibly painful, scary, frightening experience,” Briggs said. “The only lasting effect is the sense of unease about the whole thing.”

A Maine Sunday Telegram report in March described prison Capt. Shawn Welch’s use of pepper spray on Schlosser, who was restrained at the time and not allowed to wash his face for 24 minutes after the spraying. The newspaper obtained a department video of the incident, which was posted on the newspaper’s website, pressherald.com.

After the story appeared, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee held a hearing on the use of force in state prisons. At the time, legislators called for the creation of an internal affairs unit to investigate allegations of misconduct by corrections employees.

The department’s new IA investigators are in addition to the four MDOC investigators assigned to investigate criminal conduct at the two main prisons and the two youth detention facilities.

Rep. Mark Dion, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, said the internal affairs unit was a key priority for the committee.

“Internal affairs protects the integrity of the institution, helps protect public safety within the organization and provides quality control,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff. He said those goals are important not just for staff and for prisoners, who are placed in the “care and custody” of the state, but also for their family members on the outside.

New department policies are designed to improve officers’ handling of people who injure themselves and those who spit at officers, even though some of the changes have led to increased use of pepper spray in certain circumstances.

The lead-up to the use of pepper spray on a restrained inmate began when Schlosser re-injured an arm wound for which he had been previously hospitalized. Schlosser said he was hurting himself because he was upset about the breakup of his marriage and because he was being segregated from other inmates.

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