Pressure rising

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 23, 2006

In late December, after sitting on the case for over a year, Jeff Rushlau, the midcoast counties’ district attorney, charged former Supermax guard Darren Barbeau, of Benton, with using illegal force against prisoner Christopher Humphrey during an SMU extraction in November 2004. Rushlau also charged Barbeau and former guards Dennis Scott Plaisted, of Palermo, and Daniel Ross, of Woolwich, with “falsifying” evidence — attempting to destroy a videotape of the extraction. The cases are awaiting trial in Superior Court in Rockland.

Prison warden Jeffrey Merrill says that when the tape was recovered and he saw what had happened, he fired two of the three men and notified the DA. He suspended the third, Daniel Ross, for a week. Ross still works at the prison.

In over 25 years of employment in the district attorney’s office, as DA and as an assistant, Rushlau says he had never seen a prison guard prosecuted for assault on a prisoner. (Nationally, there are no figures on guard assaults on prisoners, correctional officials and critics agree.)

His delay in bringing the charges, he says, occurred because of his heavy workload and because he had to weigh the reality that guards are allowed under the law to use physical force on prisoners in certain circumstances.

Barbeau, in a telephone interview, admits taking the videotape cassette and pulling the ribbon out of it. He took the tape to an investigator two days later, he says, to defend himself against the prisoner’s accusation of using excessive force.

“I made a mistake,” he says of what he did with the tape. “It wasn’t the right thing to do.”

He had taken it because other guards felt it was possibly incriminating, he says, adding that he hadn’t even looked at it. “It seemed like it was past practice,” he says. “They’ve gotten rid of tapes in the past.”

His defense to the charge of assault, he says, is that prison policy on the use of force “wasn’t clear cut.” There was “no training at all in extractions,” he says. “They were throwing you to the wolves,” speaking of the prison administration.

“They tell you to go in and use what’s necessary,” he says, “but they don’t tell you how to do it.”

Commissioner Magnusson says that there is training in cell extractions and that he is not aware of any other tapes destroyed.

From Barbeau’s perspective, the episode that resulted in the assault charge was “a regular extraction,” he says, among the 40 to 50 in which he was involved during the year he worked at the Supermax.

Because of his size (six-foot-two and 270 pounds), he was often the man “put on the shield,” he says, the first of the six-man team to charge into a cell to subdue a prisoner. A former Augusta policeman, he was once a state arm-wrestling champion.

If convicted of assault, Barbeau could spend up to a year in the prison system where he once worked. He is charged with misdemeanor assault, which is why his potential sentence is less than the felony-assault sentences possible for inmate Michael James. But a maximum one-year sentence is also possible if he is convicted of falsifying physical evidence.

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