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Video still from an incident in Maine Correctional Center, June 10th, 2012. Capt. Shawn Welch sprays pepper spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the prisoner, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer. The video came to light after reporting by The Portland Herald in 2013. Prison Photography‘s analysis at the time: ‘The Spit Mask As Prison Torture Apparatus’

I gave a lecture in Maine this week. It went well. People said nice things. Afterward, attendees and I talked about representation and perceptions—the considerations of which form the core of my work. We talked about feasible image-based actions and intervention. I had some ideas. Questions were raised about direct political action and advocacy too. Here, though, especially specific to Maine, I didn’t feel as though I had real suggestions. But now I do and this post details them.

FIGHT AGAINST VIDEO VISITATION, FIGHT AGAINST SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

After a screening of The Prison In Twelve Landscapes hosted by the ACLU of Maine, at SPACE (a brilliant arts organisation, BTW) a panel of local experts gathered to discuss the most pressing issues at hand for prison reform in Maine and the particulars of current ongoing fights. Joseph Jackson of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Meagan Sway, Justice Fellow at ACLU of Maine and Rachel Talbot-Ross, Maine state legislator talked about their work and that of allies.

(FYI, the film is great. Here’s my review from January 2017.)

Joseph Jackson spoke first. He is a coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. His work supports youth and adults in the system. African Americans account for 1.5% of the Maine population. Yet they account for 25% of the juvenile prison population and 29% of the adult prison population. Jackson detailed how the language and applications of law persist until they go challenged. We as citizens can halt years of inertia simply by paying attention and demanding clarification, renewal.

As examples, Jackson pointed to laws that outlawed marijuana in the fifties based upon racist stereotypes. He also decried the ad hoc application of guidelines set forth by the Maine Department of Corrections; vague language (shall/should/will/may) and the consequent grey areas benefit prison administrations and staff as they can choose at will what guidelines are enforced and which can be side-stepped. When pressed, the DOC said that 1 in 8 guidelines were mere suggestions. Prisoners and advocates want clarity. If guidelines are actual policy, if they are enforced, can they be challenged.

Meagan Sway explained that it is the ACLU of Maine’s current practice to oppose laws intended to define new crimes. In the face of mass incarceration, an obstructionist approach is logical. In tandem with fights for fairer and more humane practices in the courts and prisons, it’s effective too hopefully. Drastic times call for drastic response.

Rachel Talbot-Ross is a Democrat Representative in the Maine state legislature. She spent 12 years working for the NAACP but concluded that while she had close relationships with lawmakers, commissioners, superintendents and the like, she was basically given the run around; kept busy but unable to force through meaningful change. Talbot-Ross resolved she would make more difference as an elected official. She won election in 2016 and is the first black woman to be elected to the Maine legislature since its founding 185 years ago. Think about that. Talbot-Ross doesn’t want congratulations for this and I am merely pointing out the fact.

So, my suggestions for you are these:

Support the campaigns of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC) and the ACLU of Maine against solitary confinement.

A recent PBS documentary Last Days Of Solitary would have us think that Maine leads the way in step down programs out of solitary confinement, but the truth is other regimes and cell-blocks, such as the C-Pod, function equivalently as 22 or 23 hour lockdown. Without doubt, the work of then prison chief Jospeh Ponte deserves recognition, but Ponte left MDOC in 2014 to work at Rikers Island until this year, and more committed work to reduce solitary in Maine prisons still needs to be done in his wake.

(On the topic of new modes of prison image-making, PBS’s VR reel After Solitary is worth look.) 

Go to the next MPAC Statewide Strategy Meeting

Saturday, December 2, 2017. 10:00am (doors at 9:30am). Curtis Memorial Library, Morrell Room, 23 Pleasant Street, Brunswick, ME 04011.

Sign up for news from MPAC to join its actions.

Support the work of Talbot-Ross

On November 30th, the Maine Legislative Council will decide which bills it will work on for the 2nd Regular Session. This is a procedure upon which you can have an effect.

While some bills have already been slated for debate, others have been proposed, initially turned down, but have a last chance, under appeal, to make it onto the docket for 2018/2019. Talbot-Ross and her Democrat colleagues have four bills that deal with criminal justice and if you’re a Maine voter you can influence the 10 law-makers.

One deals with in-person prison visits and the pushback against video visitation replacing physical contact. Another deals with solitary confinement. Now that marijuana is legal in Maine, there’s a push for all past marijuana convictions to be sealed. This is in order to cease the prevention of people getting jobs or other social services due to a conviction for something that is now legal.

Contact Ross’ office directly. Your calls are needed to the 10 law-makers prior to the Nov. 30th meeting to request inclusion of these reform bills in the next session. Talbot Ross’ staff will provide all the info you need to lobby your state officials.

Email: rachel.talbotross@legislature.maine.gov

Phone: 800-423-2900

Legislative website: http://legislature.maine.gov/housedems/rossr/index.html

Support the activities of Maine Inside Out, which engages system-impacted youth in drama and the arts and in advocacy.

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…I’ll be delivering a lecture How We See Prisons on Wednesday, November 8th, in the Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College at 7:15pm.

It’s free and open to the public.

College Guild has organised the event.

College Guild is a non-profit org that provides education to prisoners across America through non-traditional correspondence courses. It pairs volunteers on the outside with prisoners on the inside in a one-to-one mail correspondence that provides feedback to prisoners on their work on established coursework units. It’s all-volunteer while maintaining consistent standards. It by the people, for the people.

College Guild is currently partnered with Bates College and Bowdoin College and has more than 50 volunteer-readers on campus. The pedagogy is such that its limit is primarily only the number of man hours available from folks on the outside. The pedagogy is such that people inside and out educate one another. Why am I talking about this though, when the teaser video below describes the benefits of the program in the prisoners’ own words?

 

 

 

 

 

A quick heads up for a new photography project about prisons. Jessica Earnshaw has embarked on an investigation of aging in prison. So far, Earnshaw has visited Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, Maine State Prison and Maine Correctional Center. to make stills and videos that reflect the circumstances of elderly prisoners.

Of course, the greying of America’s prisons is a massive issue. Compassionate release for men and women who are clearly infirm and clearly no threat to society as they may have been 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago seems to me to be a no-brainer.

The project is in its very early stages and Earnshaw is sharing snippets on Instagram. Follow @AgingInPrison, listen and watch that space.

Norma, 76-years-old, cleans her teeth after every meal.

A post shared by Aging in Prison (@aginginprison) on

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Video still. On June 10, 2012, Maine Department of Correction’s employee, Captain Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of prisoner Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after Schlosser, who has an infectious disease, spat at an officer.

The pepper-spray – dispensed at point blank range – to the face of the restrained prisoner was horrific enough, but it was the use of the spit-mask that truly reflects the vindictiveness of this act of torture. Put on prisoner Paul Schlosser’s face after the pepperspray had doused his mouth, face and eyes, the spit-mask kept the irritant closer. If there was one consistent cry from Schlosser it was that the mask be removed.

Last week, the nation was shocked by video footage of Captain Shawn Welch, a Maine correctional officer discharging oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray, without warning, into the face of Paul Schlosser. Welch held the Mark 9 canister about 18 inches away. The Mark 9 is intended for disabling multiple people at a distance of no closer than 6 feet.

Some experts say the use of pepper spray can be a reasonable way to get control of a situation, even if a person is restrained, but in this case is seemed wholly unnecessary. It seems vindictive and personal.

1The incident occurred in June 2012 and the video came public following a leak. The Portland Press Herald broke the story. Welch was initially sacked but later reinstated following an appeal that took into account his service to the Maine Department of Corrections. It is scandalous that this man returns to a uniform.

Furthermore, as Press Herald OpEd argued the MDOC hunt for the source of the leak missed the point. The issue is the abuse the video shows.

The Press Herald’s coverage of the story has been thorough and I quote from it comprehensively below. The matter that stood out for me was the investigator’s observation that the confrontation became personal between Welch and Schlosser.

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.”

Schlosser had been self-harming and refusing medical attention, actions which led to the extraction from his cell by riot-gear-clad prison guards.

Welch told an investigator that the use of pepper spray was appropriate because Schlosser, who has hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.

Schlosser gasps and fights for breath. He tries to lean forward to spit out the spray, but the guard holds his head against the back of the chair. One of the guards then puts a spit mask on Schlosser. The mask traps the irritant against Schlosser’s face, at one point covering both his mouth and nose.

Schlosser says he can’t breathe and promises not to struggle or argue anymore.

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.

“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.”

DIRIGO

Above Schlosser’s restraint chair is the Seal of Maine, on which the latin word Dirigo, meaning “I lead” is emblazoned. Welch only demonstrated to his colleagues how to posture and escalate a situation. The irony ceases to matter when the outcome was so violent.

Independent experts and everyday folk can see that if spit born Hep-C was the real issue here then the spit mask should have been put on long before Welch whipped out his Mark-9 canister. And to be honest, wouldn’t anyone spit after pepper-spray to the face?

Scandalous.

Welch was ordered to take a personalised re-training program except the MDOC sent him away: It had nothing to teach him as he had already taken all recommended courses to the highest qualification. Didn’t seem to inform his conduct in this case, though.

After the episode, Schlosser was sent for a time to Maine State Prison in Warren for mental health treatment and returned to the Windham prison, where he is now in the general population. He said he is doing much better and has had no further encounters with Welch, although they see each other regularly.

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Laura Schlosser, mother of inmate Paul Schlosser, watches the video Tuesday, March 12, 2013 of an incident involving her son and Welch. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald.

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