Cumberland County Jail Credit: CBS 13

Cumberland County Jail guards appropriately followed policy when they used pepper spray last year to subdue two inmates with mental illnesses, according to the Maine Department of Corrections. In both cases, the guards weren’t able to get the inmates to follow verbal commands to be handcuffed, so they sprayed into slots in their cell doors to force their compliance.

The state investigated the two incidents at the request of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine in early June, after Executive Director Jenna Mehnert sent a letter to officials saying she feared that guards had used excessive amounts of spray to remove the man and woman from their cells and drive them to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta for psychiatric treatment.

The incidents occurred in February and March 2019, respectively, but Mehnert didn’t report them to the Department of Corrections, which has regulatory authority over the county jails, until last month because she wasn’t sure how to broach the matter without jeopardizing her working relationship with the Portland jail.

She learned about them during an April 2019 visit to the hospital in which Riverview Superintendent Rodney Bouffard shared his concern about two patients who were admitted from the same jail, still suffering the effects of pepper spray upon their arrival, according to her June 10 letter to the state. She also met with the two patients during her visit.

Ryan Andersen, manager of correctional operations for the Department of Corrections, reviewed audio and video footage of the incidents, jail records and policies, and interviewed Bouffard as part of his investigation into whether guards followed proper procedure when they used force against the two people in their custody, according to a June 26 memo Andersen sent to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, who provided a copy to the Bangor Daily News on Monday night.

In both cases, they did, Andersen concluded.

The finding alarmed Mehnert. On Tuesday, she said it demonstrates the need for an independent review of how Maine law enforcement and correctional officers handle people with mental illnesses. She has already contacted at least one state legislator with her concerns.

“From our perspective, this is not in compliance with the intent of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] to make accommodations based on someone’s mental illnesses,” Mehnert said. “This is not humane treatment of a person with mental illness. They say it is. It’s just not.”

The memo describes that when the guards pepper-sprayed the male inmate on Feb. 5, 2019, they were following a court order that required them to transport him to Riverview for hospital-level care. Because the man was classified as maximum security, the jail’s policy required the guards to place him in handcuffs and leg restraints before moving him, it states.

That morning, a lieutenant and a sergeant spent “several minutes” talking to him through a vent in his cell door in an attempt to allow them to search him and place him in handcuffs.

“You have an appointment today at the hospital for an evaluation, and you have to come with us for transportation… please come to the tray chute to cuff up… we’re going to get you some help, that’s why we’re going to the hospital to take you to the doctor today,” the guards said, according to a video of the exchange, the memo states.

When the man still refused, another corrections officer pepper-sprayed through the food chute in the cell door, which immediately prompted the man to follow directions to put his hands in the opening to be handcuffed, the video reportedly shows. However, the inmate was “covered by his blanket” when the guards deployed the spray, according to a written report of the incident by Sgt. Donald Young, the memo states.

The guards then brought the man to the jail’s intake area and allowed him to wash off under a “steady flow of water in an open area” for 5 minutes and 40 seconds. Before driving him north to Augusta, health care staff assessed him and tried to help him wipe his face, but he didn’t cooperate, according to the memo.

In her complaint, Mehnert said the man arrived at Riverview in such poor physical condition that staff, after attempting to clean him off themselves, admitted him to nearby MaineGeneral Medical Center for further care, though her letter doesn’t detail the scope of his medical needs. Andersen’s review does not describe any events that occurred after the guards brought the man to the transport van.

“After review of the incident, to include interviews conducted, the information obtained was measured against Mandatory Standards and I have determined that CCJ staff acted in compliance with expected practices,” Andersen concluded.

If that’s the case, those practices should be scrutinized, Mehnert said.

“If you look at this document, they spend several minutes communicating with him through the door vent. He’s a person in active psychosis,” Mehnert said. “You’re talking about someone who is being transported to a psychiatric hospital because the acuity of their need is so significant that they’ve been given a hospital bed.”

The memo’s recounting of the man’s treatment largely matches what Joyce, the sheriff, said happened in a June interview with the Bangor Daily News.

At the time, Joyce only commented on the male inmate’s handling because he wasn’t initially sure which female inmate Mehnert was referring to in her letter.

In her case, the woman also refused to follow directions from guards who were trying to drive her to Riverview on March 6, 2019, according to the state’s review.

Multiple guards and health care workers at the jail tried to talk her out of her cell. Finally, a lieutenant warned her that, if she didn’t, they would use pepper spray. Still, she didn’t comply, the memo states.

A sergeant deployed “a 1-2 second burst” of spray through the food chute, and everyone waited for 4 minutes and 11 seconds for the “burst to take effect” while they continued to coax her to allow them to put handcuffs on her. The video doesn’t capture anything from inside her cell, but several officers wrote in their reports of the incident that the woman was “laying on her bunk with her head covered by a blanket.”

The sergeant, Young, sprayed through the chute for another few seconds using a larger canister than before, which spurred the woman to immediately place her hands through the food slot and submit to being handcuffed, according to the memo. The guards then walked her from her cell to the intake area “for decontamination” and to be inspected by health care staff.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.