COs in Maine request stab vests

Union is asking legislators to support the purchase of "stab vests" following recent violent assaults

By David Hench
Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND, Maine — The union representing corrections officers at Maine’s prisons is asking legislators to support the purchase of “stab vests” following recent violent assaults at the Maine State Prison in Warren and Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

James Mackie, staff representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 93, on Wednesday presented a letter to the chairmen of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee asking them to support legislation providing vests to 600 corrections officers who have direct contact with inmates. The vests are designed to protect the wearer from stab wounds to the chest, back and sides. Each vest costs about $240, for a total cost around $150,000.

The proposal comes a day after Richard Stahursky, 35, a prisoner at Maine State Prison, was charged with murdering fellow prisoner Micah Boland, 38, by stabbing him 87 times with a pair of makeshift knives. Stahursky is accused of beating and repeatedly stabbing Boland Friday, then turning himself in and giving up the weapons at a guard station in the pod where the attack happened.

“This man could have very easily, instead of dropping the shivs on the desk, put it to use on the corrections officer,” Mackie said.

At Long Creek last month, three juvenile offenders allegedly ambushed a corrections worker, kicked, punched and locked him in an offender’s room before they were caught trying to escape the facility a few minutes later.

In June, Guy Hunnewell allegedly attacked fellow inmate Alan Powell Jr. with a guitar in the prison’s exercise yard, killing him.

On Wednesday, Mackie presented a letter to Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick and Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, chairs of the committee with oversight of the state Department of Corrections. The letter asks them to endorse supplying the vests for corrections officers, but says Commissioner Joseph Ponte should be able to find the money in the department’s budget, noting that the department already plans to purchase other items, including body scanners for the prisons, and has proposed building a new prison in Windham.

Dion said officer safety is an important topic that should be discussed, but said it is too early to commit to the proposal.

“If you’re managing or are the chief executive of a correctional facility, officer safety has to be high on, if not at the top of, your agenda,” Dion said. “I think this request for inclusion of stab vests as part of basic equipment is a legitimate question. We’ll have to talk about it.”

The committee’s role could be limited, Dion said, because while it provides oversight of the corrections department, it does not get involved in the daily management of facilities.

Gerzofsky said there are spates of violence in prisons, as there was when the inmates from the previous Maine State Prison in Thomaston were moved into the new facility in Warren, but he does not feel the overall level of violence has increased.

“I think we always have these anomalies that pick up now and again,” said Gerzofsky, who has served as both a state representative and senator on the committee and who also previously worked for the department in the prison industries area.

“Right now I think we have a couple high profile cases,” he said. “We have the lowest incarceration (rate) of any state in the country and our system is really quite peaceful compared to other states. But there’s a lot of broken people with a violent nature that have really earned their way into the system. We need to make sure our officers are well prepared, trained and equipped.”

Gerzofsky did say the department should consider supplying officers with slice-proof gloves that would prevents cuts from hypodermic needles and other sharp objects.

Mackie said inmate-on-inmate violence is not uncommon in the state prisons and prisoners are adept at fashioning weapons out of materials at hand.

Stahursky had already been convicted of elevated aggravated assault and aggravated assault for previous armed attacks on fellow inmates in 2003 and 2010. In both cases he was found to have had a makeshift knife, called a shank in prison parlance, which was used in the attacks.

Mackie said the level and frequency of attacks within the prison has increased in the three years since Ponte took over. He was unable to provide specific numbers and the Maine Department of Corrections has not responded to a Freedom of Access request made by the Portland Press Herald for data about assaults in the prison. Scott Fish, a spokesman for the department, said the commissioner plans to release information Friday about the level of assaults in the state facilities.

The department did not immediately respond to questions for comment about the proposal for stab vests.

Mackie said it’s important to address the issue of safety now rather than after an officer has been seriously injured or killed in a stabbing.

“The question we would ask of all of you is what price do you put on the life of a corrections officer,” Mackie wrote in his letter to the legislators.

Attacks happen very quickly and can come out of nowhere without warning, he said afterward. He said officers were told that Stahursky was in Boland’s cell for no more than two minutes.

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