February 26, 2020

Fired jail officer tells commissioners his side > Joseph Leen hopes to be reinstated following roughhousing incident in March

The details of the roughhousing of a Penobscot County Jail inmate, an incident that led to disciplinary action against three guards, were aired publicly Tuesday during what is usually a secret forum.

The grievance hearing before the Penobscot County Commissioners was held in the open at the request of Joseph Leen who was fired. The commissioners did not immediately act on his request for reinstatement and back pay.

Leen was the commander for the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and was on duty March 10 when, at around 1:20 a.m., Bangor officers brought in for booking a man who had been drinking. He was characterized several times during Tuesday’s hearing as the most combative inmate anyone on the jail staff that night had seen.

During his two-hour stay at the jail before he was bailed, the inmate’s “head was bounced off a table three times, there was a choke hold … (and) he was slapped across the face,” according to Thomas Johnston, the county’s lawyer.

Leen said the inmate swung at and lunged at guards. At one point during the hearing, Leen demonstrated on another guard in the room how officers put the inmate to the floor face down to restrain him.

The incident was reported by a Bangor police officer who witnessed it while bringing another inmate to the jail.

Jail administrators fired Leen, although he didn’t directly participate in the roughhousing. Among the reasons they gave were that he was responsible for the other two guards and that he had accumulated several disciplinary actions in the last few years.

The others disciplined were Cpl. Robert Howell, who was suspended without pay for 12 weeks, and Corrections Officer Ed Arthurs, who was suspended for six weeks. The commissioners reduced Howell’s suspension by half last month.

Leen also showed bad judgment that night, according to the administration, particularly in deciding to keep the inmate in an unsecure holding area for most of the time rather than immediately placing him in a secure holding cell.

Leen, who had worked at the jail since 1981 and had been a sergeant for nearly five years, said his decisions and actions the night of March 10 were typical of his past supervision and that he had never been criticized for similar decisions before.

He said he decided against putting the inmate in a secure holding cell — a locked room with a bench inside, monitored by guards outside — “because of the fact that when people come in like that, they tend to hurt themselves.” In the unsecure area, he said, he was able to assign a guard to stay with him the whole time.

John Basso, the union representative, also pointed out that the previous disciplinary actions against Leen were for other types of indiscretions and were unrelated to this case.

The inquiry also suggested deficiencies in the administration of the jail. In response to questions by Commissioner Peter Baldacci, Assistant Jail Administrator Cheryl Gallant said Leen had not been formally evaluated since 1987 despite a policy requiring annual evaluations. She also said she had not personally observed the overnight shift that Leen commanded.

Gallant also told Chairman Thomas Davis Jr. that she “cannot say conclusively” that Leen, who said he was away from the intake area some of the time, witnessed the roughhousing.

The inmate, during his first interview with investigators looking into the incident, said he had been “banged around a lot” but did not know by whom. He said Leen had “treated him decently,” according to statements during the hearing. In a later interview, he recalled that one officer had banged his head on the counter and another used a nightstick to put him in a choke hold.

According to Basso, the inmate also later admitted that he was “drunk and deserved anything he got.”

In the second interview, the inmate said that Bangor officers had roughed him up. After hearing that Tuesday, some commissioners wondered aloud whether the Bangor Police Department had investigated its own officers’ conduct.

Bangor Chief Randy Harriman on Tuesday afternoon denied any wrongdoing by his officers. Normally, he said, the jail staff requires inmates who appear to have been injured before their arrival at the jail to go to the hospital first, “and in this case they did not request that.”

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