Although prisoners and their advocates say rough treatment by guards of inmates — amounting to criminal assault — is not uncommon, Maine State Prison guard Captain David Cutler, 54, of Appleton, is apparently the only officer at the prison since 2005 to be charged with assaulting an inmate — and only the second in at least 20 years.
The NAACP sees the alleged assault as a possible racial incident. The man named as the victim, Renardo Williams, 35, serving 15 years for drug trafficking, is African American.
The case highlights "the perceived patterns and practices of institutionalized racism at the Maine State Prison," Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland branch of the national civil-rights organization, emailed the Phoenix. "The NAACP and Maine Department of Corrections have agreed to work collaboratively to address this and other related issues in a timely manner."
She added that incidents of racism "are definitely real and known," but have not yet been proven. The Corrections department said it had "no comment" on the Cutler case except to say it had agreed "to work collaboratively with the NAACP on issues."
On February 20, Geoffrey Rushlau, Knox County's district attorney, charged Cutler with knocking the legs out from under an unthreatening Williams on Christmas Eve while he was handcuffed — because Williams disobeyed his order to sit down. Out on bail and his employment "ended," in the department's phrasing, Cutler has an appearance scheduled for April 8 in Rockland's district court.
The 2005 assault case was dismissed, and, according to Rushlau, it's the only other assault charge brought against a Warren prison correctional officer he can recall in the 20 years he has served as DA. The prison lies within his jurisdiction.
When prisoners are charged with assaulting a guard — not a rare occurrence — the law requires a felony charge, potentially bringing a prison sentence of up to five years, but Cutler was charged only with misdemeanor assault, punishable by up to a year in jail.
The affidavit supporting Cutler's arrest, made out by Corrections Department investigator Joseph Fagone, supports Williams's description of the incident, first made public by the Phoenix (see "Why the Prison Warden Got Fired," by Lance Tapley, January 25). The affidavit depicts Cutler's action as arbitrary and unnecessary.
Cutler's arrest took place in an atmosphere of great change at the prison, as Commissioner Joseph Ponte continues his two-year-old reform program. In January he fired Warden Patricia Barnhart and appointed reform-minded Rodney Bouffard, head of the Long Creek juvenile detention center, in South Portland, as acting warden.
The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and other prisoner advocates see some guards at the prison as trying to sabotage Ponte's reforms. Cutler had long been criticized by MPAC for his allegedly callous ways with inmates. "He's not alone," MPAC's Judy Garvey told the Phoenix.
Ponte has admitted that change has been difficult for prison staff. The principal union representing guards, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has criticized him for firing Barnhart and for reducing overtime available to guards.
All over the country, AFSCME has resisted prison reforms if they appeared to jeopardize guard jobs or the ability of guards to treat inmates as they wish. As a national movement to reduce solitary confinement gathers force — with Ponte and Maine in the lead — unions have opposed it.
For more on union opposition to humanitarian reform, see "Solidarity and Solitary: When Unions Clash with Prison Reform," by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, February 21, at solitarywatch.com.