Over the weekend the Portland Press Herald reported on and released a video of Capt. Shawn Welch at the Maine Correction Center pepper-spraying a restrained inmate in the face and leaving him in distress for more than twenty minutes while he repeatedly pleaded that he could not breath. The inmate was reportedly recovering from a self-inflicted wound and on several medications for bipolar disorder and depression at the time when officers in protective gear placed him in a restraining chair for medical personnel to examine his wounds.
After he was physically restrained in the chair, he struggled as guards pinned his head under an arm, at which point Welch used a pepper spray canister intended for multiple subjects at a 18 to 20 feet range to spray the inmate in the face at close range. Welch was initially fired by the institution’s supervisor, but reinstated with a 30-day suspension by Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
Spurred by the leaked video, the Chairman of the Maine Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is now seeking a review of the incident in the context of use of force by the Maine Department of Corrections – but the Maine Department of Corrections appears more concerned about finding the source of the leak. Citing the privacy of the inmate, they launched an investigation to find out who released the video to reporters, with Associate Commissioner Jody Breton saying the facility “certainly will be tightening up security — where (information) is stored, who has access.”
Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition told the Portland Press Herald she believes the department has their priorities wrong:
“The use of the department’s resources should be going into training of their staff and officers and management so this kind of incident doesn’t happen again[...] Trying to find out how the information got into the hands of a reporter shows a reluctance to have transparency. It reeks of government heavy-handedness in oversight.
Certainly, the inmate’s right to privacy should be respected. There’s always a fine line between (that and) what the public needs to know to keep abuse and tragedy from happening [...] We feel the department itself is probably not the best arbiter of that kind of decision.”
This disturbing incident serves to highlight both the issue of prisoner abuse in U.S. correctional facilities as well as the failure of our prison system and our society to provide adequate care and support for the mentally ill: The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated there were 705,600 mentally ill adults incarcerated in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails in 2006, with the number swelling after the closure of many state run mental hospitals in 1980s left many mentally ill people with no other place to go.
Video of some of the most disturbing parts of the incident has been posted here, but be forewarned that the video is graphic.