The Maine Public Broadcasting Network
Maine Public Radio
Maine Public Classical
Maine Prison Guard Charged in Alleged Inmate Assault
02/21/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

A guard at the Maine State Prison in Warren has been arrested and charged wtih assaulting an inmate on Christmas Eve. Capt. David Cutler was taken into custody Wednesday afternoon in Knox County, booked on an assault charge and released on bail. As Jay Field reports, the union representing guards, and advocates for inmates' rights, have very different views on the incident - and what it says about the changes Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte is trying to make inside Maine's prisons.

Related Media
Maine Prison Guard Charged in Alleged Inmate Assau Listen

The Department of Corrections has said that a pattern of incidents at the Maine State Prison contributed to its decision to fire Warden Patricia Barnhardt last month. A spokesperson for the department declined to comment on the Cutler assault case Thursday. But it could be among the incidents that led to Barnhart's dismissal.

A criminal complaint lays out what allegedly happened at the prison gym at nine in the morning on Dec. 24. Cutler and another guard ordered inmate Renardo Williams into an office off the gym. They say Williams was disrupting a holiday party.

"So he was in a common area. He was not alone. He was with another inmate, and he was, by several accounts, not being disruptive," says Rachel Talbot Ross, who runs the NAACP's Maine chapter. Talbot Ross, has spoken several times with Renardo Williams since late December.

Capt. Cutler, the complaint alleges, loudly ordered Williams to sit down. Williams, by then handcuffed behind his back, refused. Cutler demanded he sit a second time, and again, Williams said no. "You ain't going to sit? Then I'll make you sit down!" Cutler said, according to the complaint.

The NAACP's Talbot Ross describes what happened next. "He had his feet knocked out from under him, falling and causing several bruises," she says. "This whole situation was witnessed by several people, including a sergeant."

In an interview, cited in the complaint, the witness, Sgt. Howlett, told investigators he couldn't believe what his colleague had done, and that inmate Williams had done nothing to provoke the Capt. Cutler.

Word of the arrest comes as Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte continues an aggressive push to evaluate the culture and internal operating procedures inside Maine's prisons. The review has led, among other things, to a more aggressive effort to investigate misconduct by guards statewide.

"I could spend my entire week ok? just sitting in investigative hearings," says Jim Mackie, who is with AFSCME Council 93, the union that represents Maine's prison guards. Mackie says the kind of misconduct alleged in the Cutler case is rare.

"I would probably dispute a lot of things that are said by inmates because, at this point in time, they know that all they have to do is to make accusations and this sort of thing can happen," Mackie says. "And the problem is is that the sensitivity level on part of the administration running the prisons right now is that, if they say it, they're going to take it as gospel and run with it."

Mackie says the state is worried about being sued and has decided to take a hard line on even the most minor incidents. He says the corrections department would rather fire someone accused of misconduct, up front, so the department can cover its behind should a guard file a grievance and get reinstated.

Mackie says this approach is making work inside Maine's prisons unsafe for guards. But inmate advocates says it's prisoners who've been on the receiving end of abuse from guards for years. Judy Garvey, with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, says her group received complaints about Capt. Cutler well before Joseph Ponte became corrections commissioner.

"We began to report to the last commissioner on certain incidents that we heard about that came from Capt. Cutler," Garvey says. "At one point, we requested medical records on one."

Garvey says the group also asked to see Capt. Cutler's personnel records, "to see if there were any disciplinary records in the files. We were told by then-Associate Commissioner Denise Lord that he had no disciplinary marks in his personnel files.

How the department has handled these past complaints is one of the questions being explored by state lawmakers on the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee. Mark Dion, the House chair, is a Portland Democrat and a former sheriff.

"As a former sheriff, I realize there's always serious concerns about how we manage the inmate population. Do we do it safely?" And one way to asses that is through an evaluation of the internal affairs procedure," Dion says. "This allegation of assault I think is, once again, an opportunity for me to press the commissioner to provide that information."

Dion says he first asked the commissioner for more detailed information on the department's disciplinary practices after the firing of Warden Barnhart. He says he intends to make the information public if the commissioner provides it.


Become a Fan of the NEW MPBNNews Facebook page. Get news, updates and unique content to share and discuss:

Recommended by our audience on Facebook:
Copyright © 2016 Maine Public Broadcasting Network. All rights reserved.