Pepper Spraying Mentally Ill Jail Inmates Conformed to Rules, Says Maine DOC

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Two pepper spray incidents in early 2019 at Maine’s Cumberland County Jail raised questions of propriety and led to a review by the State Department of Corrections. In each case, the Maine DOC concluded that jail staff followed “expected practices” when subduing the inmates with chemical irritants. Both inmates were sprayed prior to scheduled transports to the Riverview Psychiatric Center for evaluation or treatment.

In the first incident, in February of that year, jail staff spoke to the male inmate through his door slot and attempted to elicit voluntary compliance with the transport. When that failed, an officer used pepper spray to force the inmate’s cooperation in exiting his cell in handcuff restraints. Staff reportedly attempted to assist the inmate to flush the pepper spray from his face, but when he arrived at the Riverview facility after an hour-long drive, personnel there were concerned for his health and took action.

“Riverview staff immediately provided appropriate care, including showering the patient to remove remaining spray and a referral to a hospital based on the patient’s severe symptoms,” said Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

A month later, a female inmate being transported 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, according to DOC’s review.

Jenna Mehnert, chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine requested the investigation. Mehnert said the DOC report shows the jail did little to deescalate the situations or make accommodations as required by law. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act covers people with mental illness, she said, and requires state agencies to “take into consideration a person has mental illness.” In DOC’s report, says Mehnert, “there is not a single mention of the ADA and what accommodations were made in these situations.”

But Ryan Andersen, Maine DOC Manager of Correctional Operations, who wrote the report, says that jail personnel acted appropriately. After reviewing video of the incidents and interviewing jail staff, he said that “the information obtained was measured against Mandatory Standards and I have determined that CCJ staff acted in compliance with expected practices.” Andersen’s review was completed in June of 2020, after NAMI Maine spoke with the media.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said he was pleased with the review’s conclusions and added, “There is always something to be learned from every incident.” Both Sheriff Joyce and Mehnert, the mental health advocate, agree that an overreliance 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,” said Joyce.

Source: (The Portland Press Herald, July 7, 2020). Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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