Prisoners sue Maine in padlock assaults
Keith Ayotte, a former inmate at the Maine State Prison, hasn’t been the same since he was bludgeoned in the head by another inmate with a prison-issued padlock
By Scott Dolan
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND, Maine — Keith Ayotte, a former inmate at the Maine State Prison, hasn’t been the same since he was bludgeoned in the head by another inmate with a prison-issued padlock.
Although the attack took place on the open floor of Ayotte’s prison unit in plain view of other inmates and a guard on Oct. 28, 2010, no one reported seeing anything, he said.
Ayotte, now 43, was immediately knocked unconscious in the attack. He had a concussion, and his split skull was spilling blood on the floor. The next thing he remembers is regaining consciousness at a local hospital.
Ayotte and three other inmates have pending federal lawsuits against the Maine Department of Corrections in which they say they were severely injured in padlock attacks at the state prison in Warren. The department defends its policy of issuing padlocks to prisoners so they can secure their belongings.
Ayotte said that since the attack on him, his mental processing has slowed and his hand-eye coordination is permanently off.
“The (prison guards) brought me back out of the hospital. They put me right back in the same pod, and they said to me, ‘If you even look at someone wrong, you’re done,’ ” Ayotte said April 7, standing outside the federal courthouse in Portland.
Ayotte’s lawsuit against the Department of Corrections claims that guards retaliated against him for reporting the padlock attack. The case will go to trial on Wednesday.
The lawsuit alleges that guards brought him to an isolated prison room with no cameras on March 15, 2011, after he filed a complaint, where they forced him to strip naked “while they threatened him that he needed to keep his mouth shut about things that were going on, or they would bury him.”
The Department of Corrections, which does compile records on the types of weapons used in inmate attacks, acknowledges that all four inmates were injured by other prisoners.
The department continues to defend its padlock policy. It issues them to even the most violent offenders, and denies that the padlocks pose a significant threat.
“These guys have a right to keep their belongings secure,” department spokesman Scott Fish said last month.
FOUR INMATES ‘WERE BEATEN SILLY’
State law requires that inmates be allowed to secure their belongings, such as clothing, personal hygiene products and paperwork. The padlocks are meant to be used on movable footlockers. But the inmates who brought the lawsuits say it’s common knowledge that prisoners use the locks for weapons, either as improvised brass knuckles or stuffed in a sock to be swung as a flail.
Ayotte’s attorney, Verne Paradie of the Lewiston law firm Paradie, Sherman and Worden, represents each of the inmates in the four padlock lawsuits. One inmate, David Lakin, was attacked with a padlock on Sept. 10, 2010. Another, Gerard Landry, was assaulted on Sept. 6, 2011. And another, Benjamin Bean, was attacked on May 24, 2012, Paradie said.
“The reason I took these cases was these guys were nearly killed. They were beaten silly. No one deserves that,” Paradie said. “The reality is, only half of the inmates in the close-security unit, the maximum-security offenders, actually use their padlocks to lock stuff up.”
Paradie argued that sworn statements from prison officials themselves show a culture of indifference within the prison system, from the top down to the rank-and-file guards.
Paradie questioned former Warden Patricia Barnhart, who was in charge of the Maine State Prison at the time of each of the attacks, in a recorded deposition for the federal cases. He asked Barnhart whether she was concerned that prisoners were using the padlocks as weapons rather than to secure their footlockers.
“It is concerning, but they’re in a prison where if they want to find a weapon, they will find a weapon. They have 24-7 to figure that out,” Barnhart said, according to a transcript of the June 6, 2012, deposition.
The American Correctional Association, which inspects prison practices and policies for accreditation purposes, does not inquire about prison padlock policies and takes no position on whether to issue padlocks to prisoners, said its spokesman, Eric Schultz.
It’s not clear how many prisons in other states issue padlocks to their inmates.
INITIAL RULING BACKS PADLOCK POLICY
Although the federal court has allowed Ayotte’s case to go to trial on his claim that guards retaliated against him for filing a complaint, the court rejected his argument that prison officials’ padlock policy shows a “deliberate indifference” to inmate safety.
The two guards accused in the retaliation case, David Cutler and Curtiss Doyle, deny Ayotte’s claim and say the incident was a routine strip search to look for weapons and contraband.
Paradie made the legal argument in each of the four lawsuits that the state’s disregard for the danger of issuing inmates padlocks is a violation of their Eighth Amendment right protecting them from cruel and unusual punishment.
To measure that claim, the court ordered the Department of Corrections to produce a written record of the number of inmate-on-inmate assaults over the years and the number of those assaults that involved a padlock.
A federal magistrate judge overseeing the cases concluded that from January 2004 to June 2012 there were 17 reported padlock attacks in the 370 inmate-on-inmate assaults.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. used those numbers to make his ruling in Ayotte’s case, rejecting his claim that the department’s padlock policy is a constitutional violation.
“In this case, the total number of padlock assaults at the prison has remained relatively infrequent and does not permit an inference that the padlocks posed ‘a substantial risk of serious harm,’ ” Woodcock wrote in a Sept. 24, 2013, ruling.
Woodcock also rejected challenges to the padlock policy in Lakin’s case and Landry’s case. Paradie argued an appeal in those cases before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston last month. The appeals court has yet to make a ruling.
ATTACK DATA NOT EASILY ACCESSIBLE
Since the weapons used in inmate attacks are not tracked, to comply with the court order the Department of Corrections had staff members go through individual incident reports from January 2004 to June 2012 and look for the word “padlock” in one document after another.
“Individual reports indicate weapons. As far as that data being available in one place or where you can access it, it just doesn’t exist,” said Fish, the department’s spokesman. “With the padlock information, it took many, many, many hours to compile that by going through individual incident reports by people who are authorized to look at incident reports, and incident reports have a lot of confidential information in them.”
Even after a Feb. 28 slaying at Maine State Prison in which one inmate stabbed another 87 times with two makeshift knives, the department does not know how many other inmate attacks involved a particular weapon, such as a knife, padlock or coffee cup, he said.
Fish denied a request by the Portland Press Herald for a breakdown of the numbers of inmate-on-inmate attacks using different types of weapons. He said that under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, the department does not have to provide that information.
“If it’s not information that the department normally keeps records of, you don’t have to compile it,” Fish said.
Paradie said he was met with the same resistance when he was seeking data on padlock attacks.
“I was told many times that a lot of the data I was requesting didn’t exist,” he said. “Then I was told it existed on some of their databases, but it wasn’t organized in a way that was easy to reproduce. I had to keep asking.”
Paradie contended that many of the assaults happened without being reported, so no one truly knows how many padlock assaults have occurred.
Ayotte, who now lives in New Hampshire, was released from prison in 2011 after serving a sentence for criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon. He said padlock attacks occurred as frequently as once a month when he was an inmate.