The Maine State Prison in Warren. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Editor’s note: This story contains profanity.

State officials discovered last spring that a group of guards at the Maine State Prison in Warren regularly used a private messenger app to mock prisoners, joke about using force against them, share confidential prison documents and make disparaging comments about marginalized groups and the people in their custody.

None were fired, according to personnel records.

Five of the 10 guards who were active participants in the chat were allowed to keep their jobs, including a supervisor who had a duty to report the misconduct of his subordinates. That sergeant, Evan Touchette, remains the unit manager of the prison’s mental health unit.

Another four officers were allowed to resign in lieu of being fired at the end of the department’s personnel investigation, and, as a result, avoid formal discipline, meaning there are no public records documenting the misconduct that led to their departures.

Those officers and their union representatives negotiated resignation agreements that require the prison to give prospective employers a neutral job reference and say the officers resigned for personal reasons. One of the officers who resigned, Adam Corey, is now a guard at the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor.

A 10th officer left the prison in late 2020 before prison officials became aware of the chat. He is now a police officer in Lewiston.

The Bangor Daily News obtained a copy of the Facebook Messenger group chat from someone with ties to a person associated with the prison. The chat began in mid-2019, and the more than 2,500-page transcript later discovered by the Maine Department of Corrections ends in early 2021.

The messages provide a rare, unfiltered window into the private communications between line staff at Maine’s largest prison during a tumultuous period when corrections facilities confronted the early stages of the pandemic and the country grappled with a reckoning over racial justice in law enforcement.

Their attitudes toward prisoners, policies and major social events portray a workplace culture at odds with the department’s public-facing shift toward a more progressive corrections model.

Confronted with the messages, however, the state’s lenient response suggests it isn’t willing to hold staff accountable to its stated mission, a prisoner advocate said.

“This is why advocates are talking about the need for systemic change, about the face the DOC puts out and the internal face that incarcerated residents are trying to navigate,” said Joseph Jackson, president of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “The Department of Corrections has a track record of standing by its own, even in the face of what seems to be actions that go against its values.”

At least one of the guards who resigned, meanwhile, described the chat group as a way for an overworked, mentally taxed group of coworkers to decompress and support one another as they worked through a stressful time, both in their professional and personal lives.

“If you’re at the prison and swimming in mace and [pepper] spray every day, or, in my case, one of your best friends was brutally beaten one day, it gets to your head,” Corey said, referencing a time he listened to a prisoner attack his former partner over his radio. “So the only ones there to help us get through the bullshit at work or home was each other.”

He also downplayed the severity of the messages, emphasizing that what the men said in private should not be used to judge their performance at work.

“Venting is something that isn’t professional. You get out what’s on your chest,” he said.

Five guards either declined to comment or did not return messages. The BDN was unable to contact three of the 10 corrections officers who actively participated in the chat.

In addition to Corey, one other guard spoke to the BDN, although briefly.

“I wasn’t disciplined. I resigned. It’s a very interesting job. I don’t want to slander the Department of Corrections, but they did not handle themselves with integrity, honor or anything in that matter,” former Officer Cody Kennedy said.

In a statement, Anna Black, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said the department asked the state’s Office of Employee Relations to investigate after it learned last spring that several guards had “posted confidential departmental documents and highly offensive and inappropriate comments.”

The guards were then punished in ways “commensurate with the involvement and severity of the transgression committed by each individual” and their past disciplinary history, Black said.

“The Maine Department of Corrections prioritizes respect and integrity. Hiring practices and staff training emphasize these values,” Black said. The department “will continue to underscore that staff must conduct themselves in accordance with these values, both for our employees and for our residents.”

The chat began as a way for officers assigned to the prison’s medium security unit to easily communicate with each other. It eventually became a place where officers chatted about their families, how they were spending their days off, the major news events that affected them as corrections officers and, in ways that sometimes ran afoul of the rules, what happened at work.

For instance, corrections officer Steven Payne posted an internal memo on Dec. 21, 2020, showing that guards responded to three medical episodes the day before, including to give the overdose-reversing drug Narcan to a prisoner who was found unresponsive in his cell.

“These retards don’t even know how to get high the right way,” replied former corrections officer Andrew Stanley, who resigned in September.

A few weeks later, Payne mentioned how a man was being transferred to the prison’s intensive mental health unit, or the IMHU. During the height of the pandemic, the prison frequently went into lockdown due to staffing shortages, forcing inmates to spend days in their cells, and this man had become suicidal as a result.

“Imhu for about a month,” Payne said.

“Nice lol,” replied Joe Dighton, who had already left his job at the prison but stayed active in the chat. He has since become an officer at the Lewiston Police Department.

“The constant lock downs broke him,” said Kennedy, who resigned in September.

“Hahahaha so true,” Payne wrote.

The prison suspended Payne without pay for two weeks instead of terminating him, according to an Oct. 13, 2022, discipline record. The record cited him for sharing confidential resident information, making inappropriate conversation and sharing inappropriate material with coworkers, which violated the prison’s code of conduct policy.

The policy states that “while representing or appearing to represent the Department, either with or without authorization,” employees must be “civil in their speech and actions” with one another, prisoners and the public; and not “use profanity, be abusive, or display any behavior that casts doubt on their honesty, integrity, or character.” They are required to not bring discredit upon the department, to refrain from conduct that could be considered discriminatory and to maintain the confidentiality of prisoner information.

As a result of the group chat, the department updated the policy on Oct. 7, 2022, to expand upon how staff should behave on social media, Black said. For example, the new policy prohibits any posting that “ridicules, disparages, or negatively expresses bias or disrespect towards any race, religion, sex, gender, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, nationality, age, disability, or any other legally protected classification.”

Interspersed with comments about football, politics and their favorite beers, one officer mentioned having to supervise an inmate at the hospital because he was “swallowing shit again,” referring to a prisoner who had tried to harm himself by ingesting metal.

Another said he gave his daughter a cold after catching it from “that retard in imhu that’s quarantined for the flu.” A guard once asked if a prisoner was placed on emergency observation status because he was “running his cock holster,” referring to his mouth.

When he sat for an interview with someone from the state’s Office of Employee Relations this summer, she read him comments from the chat and asked him if he thought they were appropriate, he told the BDN.

“At work, no. No one would write that at work,” Corey replied. “But I can say anything I want with my buddies. That’s America.”

Payne also referred to two inmates as “fags” after they spoke up about losing their jobless benefits during the pandemic in a local paper. It was one of several instances where he and other guards, including Corey, used homophobic slurs or made homophobic jokes. Officer Ethan Beaulieu, who resigned in September, posted a picture of a fake pill that “cures gayness.”

Beaulieu also shared a video that appeared to suggest some justification for the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The group generally expressed pro-police criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement during that period. They occasionally posted racist memes about Black people, mocked implicit bias training and joked about harming protesters.

Touchette, the only supervisor on the chat, was promoted in late 2020 to be the unit manager of the intensive mental health unit. In October, the prison disciplined him with “a written suspension” for having inappropriate discussions with his coworkers, sharing confidential information about prisoners and failing to report the misconduct of his subordinates.

Indeed, not only did the sergeant fail to enforce the prison’s code of conduct, he seemed to encourage the conversation among his subordinates.

On Sept. 19, 2020, he wrote, “Embrace the smell Luce it’s the best!!” He was referring to one of the unit’s newer and younger officers, Jonathan Luce, about the smell of pepper spray.

Touchette joked with another guard about going “liberal hunting” together. When an officer cautioned the group to be careful about what they said online, the sergeant laughed it off by saying, “if your white and post anything that controversial your labeled as ‘racist.’”

Touchette also downplayed the severity of the pandemic, referring to people he saw wearing masks indoors as “sheep,” despite being a supervisor at a congregate living facility that had imposed policies such as masking to stem the spread of the virus.

The group seemed to share his views, with one other officer referring to COVID as the “liberal flu” and another sharing a picture comparing Gov. Janet Mills to Hitler because of her pandemic policies. Officer Nick LeClair, who ultimately received a one-week suspension for participating in the chat, suggested the media had exaggerated COVID as a way to spite then-President Donald Trump ahead of the 2020 election.

And when the former deputy corrections commissioner Ryan Thornell emailed staff to say they could no longer wear neck gaiters instead of masks, citing updated guidance from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, former corrections officer Kennedy called the decision “retarded” and made a lewd comment about Thornell and Commissioner Randall Liberty.

“Fucking bunch of fuck bag inmate loving suck offs,” he wrote.

Luce, the newer hire, received one of the most lenient punishments, a written reprimand, when officials learned about the chat. He said in the comment section of his write-up that he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I made no intention for my comments to be seen or taken by the public,” he wrote. “This to me was in my opinion a private place for people … to blow off steam, build morale, and take care of each other.”

Jackson, of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, observed during his time incarcerated at the Maine State Prison that officers often fell into social cliques, and the group chat seemed to be an example of how that camaraderie can be toxic.

“This is a job that needs to be taken with some level of professionalism and seriousness,” Jackson said, noting the great power afforded to corrections officers. To mock people suffering from a mental health crisis when it’s their job to help them, for example, “seems to show that you don’t have the level of empathy to be in a position over people.”

Geoffrey Reese, who has been incarcerated at the prison since 2009, said he understands the guards have a constitutional right to freedom of speech, but corrections officers are public employees who agree to uphold a high standard of integrity when they take on the responsibility to look after people in custody, and they know they can face penalties for breaching that standard.

“Verbalized bias is a confirmation of an inability to govern and decide on the welfare of residents in a fair and impartial manner,” Reese said.

Not all of the officers who participated in the chat still work at the prison, but they left under resignation agreements that hide their misconduct. Policing experts have criticized such agreements for enabling problematic officers to cover their tracks and find new jobs elsewhere.

In Maine, allowing an officer to resign instead of being fired also undermines the spirit of state transparency laws that were designed to shed light on the misconduct of public employees.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said the county was unaware of the circumstances surrounding Corey’s resignation when the county hired him as a corrections officer less than two months later, in early November. Morton said the county was looking into the matter.

Corey had already begun the process of applying to the jail in Bangor before he was given the option to resign.

At the same time, Corey was shocked when he was asked to resign or be fired last fall because he said his superiors at the prison had led him to believe he would keep his job.

When a deputy warden first told Corey over the summer that he was being placed on administrative leave while he was under investigation, he suggested the ordeal would blow over and told Corey to “maybe stay off Facebook,” Corey said.

Corey also met with the prison’s top official, Warden Matt Magnusson, in the fall, and came away feeling like he had the warden’s support, he said. Magnusson did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The commissioner’s office felt differently, he said. Corey believes he was asked to resign over a comment he made about having to refer to prisoners as “residents” and because officials were afraid how it would look if the chat ever became public in the media.

“I’m not going to say [the ‘residents’ comment was a] slip of the tongue, but if that message took me two seconds to write, that’s two seconds out of one year,” Corey said. “If you want to hang me for two seconds out of one year for being in a really bad mood and shooting from the hip, so be it.”

Corey sent the message that he believes cost him his job on Nov. 16, 2020, during a conversation with other guards about how they didn’t see eye to eye with the administration about a new policy that asked the guards to use more person-centered terms. They were to refer to “inmates” as “residents,” “substance abuse” as “substance use,” “sex offenders” as a “person with problem sexual behavior,” and the “mentally ill” as a “person with mental illness.”

“I love the last line,” Kennedy wrote, responding to a screenshot of an email announcing the policy change that someone had posted. He continued, “language matters right so call a fucking spade a fucking spade.”

“I wonder who was on that committee damn sure wasn’t anyone from the prison I’ll tell you that much,” Touchette responded.

“Stupid bitch I want lepage back,” Luce wrote, referring to Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, respectively.

“I think I’m going to take a patrol job,” Corey said. “I’m not a resident assistant and I won’t write the word ‘resident ‘ in a report. Especially when writing a report that involves [a] fucking asshole inmate who diddles kids and who I personally think should have been shot in face in public then stomped out if it didn’t kill them just so the American taxpayer doesn’t have to be burdened with their existence or expense.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Steven Payne’s first name.

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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.