March 21, 2013

Prison captain fired, but later reinstated, after pepper spraying inmate

A 2012 confrontation caught on video provides a rare glimpse inside a Maine prison.

By David Hench
Staff Writer

A prison captain who was removed from his job last year -- and then reinstated -- discharged pepper spray directly into the face of an inmate who was restrained and left him in distress for 24 minutes, according to confidential documents and a videotape of the incident obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

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Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Maine Correctional Center inmate Paul Schlosser, who is bound in a restraint chair, June 10, 2012. Welch told an investigator that the use of pepper spray was appropriate because Schlosser, who has hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.

Image taken from video obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

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Paul Schlosser peers out the food tray slot in his cell door June 10, 2012. Schlosser, who had injured himself, took the dressing off his wound and was put under observation and videotaped through this food tray slot.

Image taken from video

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The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is publishing the entire video of the June 10, 2012, incident involving inmate Paul Schlosser so readers can get a complete picture of what happened. The video, which was shot by a prison employee, runs 2 hours and 10 minutes. Viewers should be aware that both the full video and the 17-minute excerpt (which depicts the most crucial moments) contain explicit language, violence and disturbing images. View the videos.

Capt. Shawn Welch was fired from his job at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham in August after an investigator looking into the June 10 incident said he violated several prison policies and used excessive force on the inmate because he had a personal grudge against the prisoner, according to Department of Corrections documents.

"In my investigation it appears that the situation went from a security situation to a punishment one," Scott Durst, a former Maine Drug Enforcement Agency detective, wrote in his report.

Welch was fired and appealed his termination, according to documents. The appeal was denied by Scott Burnheimer, superintendent of the Maine Correctional Center, on Aug. 15 in a letter that said he would not be offered another position in the department. However, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte later overruled the recommendation to fire Welch, resulting in Welch's being suspended for 30 days, rather than fired.

Ponte said he weighed Welch's inappropriate behavior in the incident, which he said began legitimately because the inmate was injuring himself, against Welch's work record over many years. Welch's work record is otherwise clean, Ponte said.

"When you've got a substantial amount of years of good, sound decision-making and performance measured against one bad decision, it's kind of, you look at the odds," Ponte said.

Since the incident, he said, the department has brought in training experts from the Connecticut Department of Correction, considered a leader in innovative and nonconfrontational ways of managing people who injure themselves.

A videotape of the incident obtained by the newspaper and the ensuing investigation offer an unusual glimpse inside the prison and a disturbing perspective on the sometimes violent confrontations between inmates and staff. Officials say the incident is an aberration and that treatment of prisoners has improved dramatically in recent years.

On the tape, Paul Schlosser III, who is serving seven years for robbery, is shown gagging and gasping for air after Welch sprays him in the face. A spit mask is then put over Schlosser's face, trapping the powerful irritant. Welch taunts Schlosser, telling him to cooperate or be sprayed again.

Welch himself told the investigator, "Certainly from an outsider's point of view it looks horrific," according to the report. But he said the use of pepper spray was appropriate because Schlosser, who has hepatitis C, spit on one of the officers and was not being cooperative. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that is present in saliva if someone with the infection has open sores in their mouth or bites their cheek.

Contacted at the Maine Correctional Center, Welch declined to comment, saying that any interviews or press inquiries had to go through the administration.

Steve Yerger, an Oregon-based private consultant who trains officers about use of force, said spraying an inmate who is already restrained is generally unreasonable and unethical.

"The use of force is to get control of the situation and keep everybody safe. It's not a form of punishment, which leads to torture," Yerger said. "That's a clear, blatant violation in most facilities."

Pepper spray causes intense and often overwhelming discomfort to mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth but several studies have found the concentrated pepper spray has no long-term health effects.

Some experts say the use of pepper spray, called OC spray for the active ingredient, oleoresin capsicum, can be a reasonable way to get control of a situation, even if a person is already restrained.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Laura Schlosser watches a video last week of the 2012 incident involving her son, inmate Paul Schlosser, and Capt. Shawn Welch at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. “As a mother, it makes me want to throw up,” she said.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Joseph Ponte, state corrections commissioner, said his decision to reinstate Capt. Shawn Welch weighed Welch’s inappropriate behavior in the incident involving Paul Schlosser against Welch’s otherwise clean work record.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Capt. Shawn Welch, in an interview with an investigator: "Certainly from an outsider’s point of view it looks horrific."

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