A graphic video (shown below) recently leaked to the public shows a team of corrections officers make liberal use of prison torture tactics on a man who was, at the time of the incident, incarcerated at Maine Correctional Center and had been held in solitary confinement for two months. A still of the explicit footage, originally obtained by the Portland Press Herald, captures Captain Shawn Welch spraying pepper spray directly into the face of the restrained man as the team of guards use brutal force to thwart any efforts at resistance.
The man, Paul Schlosser, who suffers from mental illness, was at the time taking several medications to treat his bipolar disorder and depression. Allegedly leading up to the incident, which took place in June 2012, was Schlosser’s refusal to go to the prison medical unit to be treated for a self-inflicted injury on his arm. Next, in what is referred to as a “cell extraction,” corrections officers wearing protective gear removed Schlosser from his cell, putting him into a restraint chair. At first, Schlosser was compliant, but, as reported by the Press Herald:
[W]hen one of the officers pins back Schlosser’s head, as his arms are being put into the chair’s restraints, Schlosser starts to struggle. When he spits at one of the officers, Welch sprays him with pepper spray, also called OC spray.
Schlosser becomes compliant and complains about not being able to breathe. One officer puts a spit-mask on him, trapping the pepper spray on Schlosser’s face.
Welch tells him he must cooperate to avoid similar treatment. Schlosser is in distress for 24 minutes before he is allowed to wash his face.
Welch, who sprayed the OC without warning, held the canister about 18 inches away from his target’s face, despite the fact that this particular canister type has the potential to stop multiple people dead in the tracks from over six feet away. After the story broke, Welch was terminated but, following an appeal that took into consideration his service to the Maine Department of Corrections, he was reinstated.
Upon viewing the footage, the investigator assigned to the case made an important observation:
In the 24 minutes between Schlosser being sprayed and when he can wash the spray off his face, Welch strolls in and out of the cell holding the OC spray canister, telling Schlosser that if he doesn’t cooperate, “this will happen all over again.”
“You’re not going to win. I will win every time,” he says.
Welch says repeatedly, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing,” suggesting that as long as Schlosser was complaining, he was not in serious medical distress. Welch does call for a member of the prison’s medical staff.
At one point, he whispers to Schlosser, “Useless as teats on a bull, huh … What do you think now?” an apparent reference to an insult Schlosser directed at him two days earlier, according to the investigator’s report.
The investigator concluded that Welch’s treatment of Schlosser was personal.
“Welch continues to brow beat Schlosser and it looks like he has made this a personal issue,” said Durst in the report. “There is not one incident of de-escalation and in fact Welch continues to escalate the situation even after the deployment of chemical agent.”
Welch later defended his use of the pepper spray to an investigator, stating his actions were not out of line since Schlosser, who has Hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.
In detailing what Schlosser may have experiences as a result of the spit-mask trapping the pepper spray, Pete Brook writes that “Pepperspray instantly dries out mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth causing intense and overwhelming pain. Pepperspray leads to a sensation of not being able to breathe, although a National Institute of Justice study found it does not compromise a person’s ability to breathe.” Brook continues:
“It’s just like getting jalapeno pepper in your eye, only multiplied by a bunch,” said Robert Trimyer, a use of force instructor and OC trainer with the University of Texas Health Science Center Police Department in San Antonio.
Depending on the concentration, OC spray is roughly 300 times “hotter” than a jalapeno pepper.
“It’s painful, but it goes away. The people that have the problem breathing, it’s really more of the anxiety involved,” said Trimyer.
Yerger believes that putting the spit shield on top of the pepper spray would intensify the effect of the spray.
“I have never heard of any trainer I have ever worked with as a peer that would ever say, ‘Put a spit hood on someone after pepper spraying them,’” he said.
“They’re spinning out of control. Restraint, pepper spray, now cover their face — you’re just escalating the situation. In cases I’ve reviewed when people have died in a (restraint) chair, it’s not uncommon to see factors like that involved.”
Schlosser’s story is disturbingly reminiscent of an incident that took place in 2000, also involving a leaked video (shown below) of a brutal cell extraction in Maine. The footage, leaked to journalist Lance Tapley, shows the cell extraction of Mike James, who, like Schlosser, suffered from mental illness. The video shows officers forcibly removing James from his cell as he is maced by officers. The corrections officers then remove the incapacitated man’s clothing and place him in a restraint chair.
Ultimately, the horrific footage of prison torture and Tapley’s ensuing story added fuel to a growing movement against solitary confinement in Maine, which led to reforms in that state (described in a recent report from the ACLU of Maine).
In another story reporting on the incident, Tapley highlights the irony of the U.S. prison system’s treatment of mentally ill people who are incarcerated, stating:
Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.
James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantanamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons…
In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity…
[I]solation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.