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Maine inmate spends more than 2 years in isolation amid struggles to determine competency

Deysean Sanchez, 38, has repeatedly assaulted COs, sometimes throwing his own urine and feces at them

By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald, Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — A man who may be suffering from mental illness has spent more than two years in solitary confinement at the Cumberland County Jail and could soon be found competent to stand trial despite an inability to assist in his own defense, his attorney said.

Deysean Sanchez, 38, has repeatedly assaulted correction officers, sometimes throwing his own urine and feces at them, court records show, leading to his long-term lockup in the jail’s most restrictive unit, where he is alone in a cell for nearly every hour of the day.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have found that prolonged isolation can exacerbate mental illness, and have even likened it to torture in some cases. It’s why the Maine State Prison embarked on a plan nearly a decade ago to limit the use of prolonged segregation for mentally ill inmates, although prisoner advocates still say any use of prolonged isolation is harmful and counter to rehabilitation.

But it’s unknown what limits or guidelines are in place for solitary confinement in Cumberland County, which is not run by the state Department of Corrections. A request for documents and policy information filed Oct. 6 with the Sheriff’s office has not been fulfilled.

So it’s unknown exactly how many assaults Sanchez has allegedly perpetrated against officers, how many consecutive days he has spent in isolation and what guidelines jail staff must follow in deciding the conditions of his confinement.

Efforts to ban the use of solitary confinement in Maine earlier this year failed in the state Legislature. L.D. 696 would have significantly reduced isolation for more than 17 hours a day, but met resistance in committee.

Although the case has been placed on the court’s mental health docket — a system designed to prevent mentally ill people from languishing in jail without treatment — that’s exactly what has happened, said his attorney, Robert Andrews.

“I’ve been practicing for 22 years now, I’ve never run into a case this complex,” said Andrews, who was appointed by the court. “The second aspect of competency is not just do you know where you are, what day it is and how the court system functions. The other aspect of competency is can you assist in your defense. We are not in a place where Mr. Sanchez can assist in his defense.”

Andrews worries Sanchez will be tried without being able to participate in his case, leaving limited room for defense against the maximum possible sentence.

He has also struggled to find the family of his client, who he believes to be from New York. It’s unclear how Sanchez got to Maine, when he arrived or what brought him to Portland. Police charged him in 2020 for elevated aggravated assault and aggravated assault for allegedly slashing a woman in the face during a fight outside the Preble Street Resource Center on Portland Street.

The confrontation started when a group of about five or six people approached Sanchez and accused him of selling fake heroin and demanded their money back, according to police reports filed in court.

A larger group of people formed around him as the argument escalated. Sanchez argued with them and pulled out a knife, witnesses told police.

Witnesses say Sanchez was lunging at members of the crowd, some of whom had reached for his backpack on the ground. Sanchez dropped his cigarettes and cell phone in the commotion. A woman in the crowd who did not know Sanchez and was not among the people who confronted him, picked up the items to give back to Sanchez, she told officers. Sanchez slashed her in the face as she bent down, she said.

When police arrived they found her nearby pressing a blood-soaked sweatshirt to her right cheek. The gash extended from below her eye to her jawline and required several stitches.

Police said Sanchez matched the description of the assailant. During intake, jail staff found small baggies with white powder in his pocket, but he was never charged with drug possession, a fact that could support witness statements that he had sold fake drugs.

Within a few months, Andrews filed a motion for a state psychologist to evaluate Sanchez, the first step in assessing his mental health and if he is competent to stand trial.

“Counsel has become aware through his investigation of charges pending against Deysean Sanchez, numerous unsuccessful attempts to speak with Mr. Sanchez, conversations with members of the Cumberland County Jail, and material provided through discovery that an abnormal state of mind may have played a role in the events of May 3,” Andrews wrote in July 2020.

Andrews declined to discuss the nature of Sanchez’s apparent mental illness but said that regular conversation is only sometimes possible. Most other times, he suspects that delusions are in control.

A judge granted the evaluation, but by September, Andrews was back with an almost identical request, this time to take place at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, at the recommendation of staff at the jail.

“Counsel has also been contacted by a member of the Cumberland County Jail who reports the mental health team believes Mr. Sanchez should be evaluated at Riverview because jail medical services believe he cannot be managed appropriately at the jail,” wrote attorney Matthew Crockett, who briefly represented Sanchez through Andrews’ law firm.

A judge again agreed: Sanchez should be evaluated in a more intense psychiatric setting.

But Riverview would not accept him, Andrews said. Sanchez’s history of lashing out made him too much of a risk to staff and others. So he was sent to the Maine State Prison’s mental health unit for about a month.

By that time, Sanchez was charged again for allegedly assaulting a corrections officer Sept. 11, 2020, a misdemeanor. Since then he has been charged three more times with assault, court records show, twice with felonies.

In the spring of 2021, Sanchez’s pattern of throwing feces and urine through the “food chute” in his cell door had become so regular that staff used a plastic shield to enter and exit the unit when Sanchez was permitted out, court records show.

In all, Justice Thomas Warren has signed off on mental health evaluation orders four times: twice in 2020, once in 2021 and most recently on May 4, 2022. The court last held a status conference in the case in late September. Another competency hearing will likely come next, Andrews said.

“What makes me believe something’s wrong is he’s not participating in his defense. Right now, he’s being held in jail for an extended period of time because he won’t cooperate with anyone. Why would anyone want to be held under those conditions for an extended period of time? It’s not rational,” Andrews said.

At the last competency hearing on June 14, 2021 held via Zoom, Sanchez refused to participate unless he was let out of his cell, a demand that correction staff refused. Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren found Sanchez competent at that time based on a 2020 doctor’s report, despite his behavior.

” Mr. Sanchez has the burden of proof on the issue of competency,” Warren wrote. “At this time, based on the evidence in the record, Mr. Sanchez ... is not able to do so,” and said Sanchez is not willing to “behave in a manner that would allow him to participate and to cooperate with counsel.”

Andrews said he fears the court will lose patience, and that his client will be forced to go to trial without the ability to assist in his own defense. It also may mean that Sanchez will not be able to accept a plea deal if one were to be offered. Pleas must be knowing, voluntary and intelligent, according to state law, and Sanchez would be made to answer a judge’s questions during a plea hearing about his state of mind and his understanding of the process.

“They believe that this is a goal-oriented behavior based on some misguided plan to delay court proceedings,” Andrews said. “I’m not in the business of judging people competent. I can’t talk to the guy, he won’t really participate. This is one of the hardest situations I’ve been in, because if he continues, let’s assume they’re right, he continues with that strategy, really bad things are going to happen to him.”

(c)2022 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)