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Maine Jail Gets a Pass for Using Pepper Spray on Mentally Ill Prisoners

The review by DOC manager of corrections Ryan Andersen drew a rebuke from Jenna Mehnert, the chief executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine (NAMI-Maine).

“They’re in a psychotic state,” she noted of the detainees.

That’s evidence of mental illness for which the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires agencies to make “accommodations,” she added. Yet Andersen’s report contains “not a single mention” of ADA, even though it “absolutely applies to the actions of law enforcement and corrections,” Mehnert said.

In the first incident in February 2019, jail staff spoke to a male detainee through a door slot in his cell, attempting to elicit voluntary compliance with transport to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. When that effort failed, guards flooded the cell with pepper spray to force the inmate’s cooperation so that they could apply handcuff restraints and get him out of his cell.

A month later, a female detainee scheduled for transport to Riverview was pepper-sprayed twice before officers were able to handcuff her and remove her from her cell. Jail staff assisted her with flushing the spray before transporting her.

In both cases, jail staff attempted to help the detainees flush the pepper spray from their faces, according to the DOC review. But when the male detainee arrived at Riverview after an hour-long drive, personnel there were concerned for his health and took action, according to Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Riverview has its own history of problems. The 92-bed facility lost its certification from the federal government in 2013 for deficiencies that included improper use of pepper spray. The facility was recertified in 2019.

Mehnert said she was invited to Riverview on April 11, 2019, to meet with Superintendent Rodney Bouffard and Medical Director Matthew Davis to discuss the hospital’s progress under its new leadership. While there, she said Bouffard approached her about some concerns he had about one particular sheriff’s department because of excessive use of OC or “pepper” spray. He then related the two 2019 incidents in which Riverview had received patients recently pepper-sprayed during psychotic episodes while detained at CCJ.

While at Riverview, Mehnert interviewed both patients. The female was delusional during her interview, but she did make specific comments showing she remembered the pepper-spraying incident, Mehnert said. The male, whom she said was more articulate, described how guards were trying to remove him from his cell when he was pepper-sprayed, but he said they hadn’t explained where they were taking him.

He was sprayed so badly, Davis said, that he continued to complain about a burning sensation in his eyes even after being cleaned up both at CCJ and Riverview. He was ultimately sent to Maine General Medical Center for his physical ailments before he could be treated for his mental condition.

Mehnert called to discuss the incidents with Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce. He said he did not fault the guards because they had followed procedure to choose pepper spray as the least harmful alternative. He said several guards “can push in, and it becomes a scuffle, and someone gets hurt. Or you can spray under the door, so the room fills with pepper spray, and the person complies.”

Mehnert countered that Tasers and chemical agents were appropriate responses only when someone presents a threat to the safety of law enforcement personnel. But by merely refusing to leave his cell, the detainee was an immediate threat to no one. There was no imminent risk of violence. An alternative action should have been found.

Sheriff Joyce remained adamant in support of his guards’ decision to use pepper spray in the two incidents, leading Mehnert to write DOC Commissioner Randy Liberty in June 2020 to request a formal review because she worried the use of force without reasonable effort to accommodate the detainee’s illnesses could be considered a violation of their civil rights.

DOC has regulatory authority over all of Maine’s 16 county jails. In addition to investigating the incidents, Mehnert asked DOC to review the jail’s policies governing use of pepper spray on mentally ill detainees and prisoners.

After reviewing surveillance video of the incidents and interviewing jail staff, Andersen determined on behalf of DOC that “CCJ staff acted in compliance with expected practices.”

Sheriff Joyce said he was pleased with the review’s conclusions, though he added, “There is always something to be learned from every incident.”

Mehnert’s group has a contract with the state to conduct crisis intervention training in seven of the state’s county jails. But Sheriff Joyce said with 300 to 400 inmates, his jail is so large that training all its staff is “a tough hill to climb.” In fact, its mental health staff – four case workers and a nurse – are most days “just skimming on top of the waves,” he said.

Both Joyce and Mehnert agree that an over-reliance on jails to handle mental illness is problematic.

“At 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning, no one is open so you call the jail,” Joyce lamented.