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$115,000 Settlement for Excessive Pepper-Spraying of Maine Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

After reaching a $115,000 settlement with the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC), a state prisoner dismissed his suit on October 21, 2021, in which he alleged guards at the Maine State Prison (MSP) used excessive force against him when they deployed eight times the amount of chemical agents allowed by prison policy.

DOC also agreed to policy changes limiting chemical agent use inside prisoners’ cells, as well as enhanced decontamination procedures when they are deployed. The agency also agreed to provide additional administrative oversight and a new review process for use-of-force incidents in which chemical agents are used.

The prisoner, Geoffrey Reese, was being held in a single-man cell at MSP on May 6, 2016, after complaining in writing to a supervising guard about the wrongful seizure of legal materials in another case. But Reese’s requests to speak with the supervisor about the seizure were “ignored or denied after receiving no response,” according to the complaint he later filed.

In protest — and hoping to force a visit from the supervisor where he could talk about his grievance — Reese covered the window of his cell door with toilet paper strips. However, “Reese made no threat, verbal or physical” toward any guard or prisoner “during or after placing the toilet paper over his cell window,” his complaint recalled.

Guard Michael LeClair reported the incident to Sgt. Kevin Court, who authorized use of chemical agents to extract Reese from the cell. Guards instructed Reese to remove the toilet paper from his cell window. Reese failed to respond. Guards then “deployed a twenty-three second dose of vaporized chemical agent” into Reese’s cell. A minute later, they followed that with a second spray about ten seconds long, emptying a cannister of the Sabre pepper spray into Reese’s cell.

But they weren’t done. Another minute after that, guards Michael Burns and Kyle Ruffner simultaneously unloaded a third and fourth cannister into the cell, fogging it for another 23 seconds. All told, Reese was exposed to “a net 80-second dosage of Sabre chemical agents for covering his cell window with toilet paper,” his complaint alleged. DOC policy, it added, limited exposure to “9 seconds over a 15-minute exposure period.”

Guards then ordered Reese to strip so they could conduct a visual strip-search, while he remained covered in chemicals. After Reese was removed from his cell, he was taken to the medical unit and a nurse wiped chemical residue from his eyes. But no decontamination was provided for other areas of his skin. His requests to shower were also denied. In fact, Burns told Reese that rinsing with water would exacerbate his pain and discomfort. “Reese was ultimately denied any opportunity to shower for three days following the Incident,” his complaint recalled.

Reese further alleged that Defendants had a practice of deploying chemical agents in excessive “super-soaker” doses during cell extractions, which had persisted “for at least 18 months” prior to the incident in his cell.

Represented by attorneys James G. Monteleone and Patrick Marass of Bernstein Shur in Portland, along with Zachary L. Heiden and Emma E. Bond of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Reese filed suit in federal court for the District of Maine in 2018. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, he accused DOC and its officials of violating his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

The parties engaged in some back-and-forth over redactions of DOC testimony and discovery materials. Plaintiff argued that the public had an interest in how its agents acted, and the Court largely agreed. However, it conceded that releasing too much information about internal decision-making “might allow a prisoner to accurately predict how prison staff will act, thereby putting the prison staff in danger,” so it partially granted the motion to redact on November 15, 2020. See: Reese v. Liberty, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213103 (D. Me.).

The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement on September 10, 2021. Under its terms, the payment Reese accepted also included his legal costs and fees. See: Reese v. Liberty, USDC (D. Me.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00421.

Reese, now 40, is serving a 29-year sentence for aggravated assault of his girlfriend in 2008, shortly after the couple relocated from Texas to a hotel in Old Orchard Beach. Described by his defense attorney at sentencing as a model student and athlete, he blamed what he did “on a series of foolish decisions that I regret deeply.” 

Additional source: Portland Press-Herald

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