Challenges remain as Androscoggin County Jail struggles to recover from era of damaging antics, lawsuits and low morale

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AUBURN — It started with juvenile pranks, like slathering shaving cream on a phone handset. 

There were nicknames, too, some more offensive than others. And teasing. Taunting. Horseplay that sometimes left bruises.

Then, harassment.

That name-calling grew vicious — including “lizard” and “it.” Some say they were constantly antagonized while others seemed to get special treatment. A clique ruled with humiliation and intimidation.

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Middle-schoolers? Hardly. 

Officers at the Androscoggin County Jail.

Over the past few years, the county’s only correctional facility has been the subject of three lawsuits by former female guards alleging sexual harassment. It’s been the focus of at least one internal investigation that painted a picture of an unprofessional, hostile workplace overseen by a shift supervisor who spent more time playing on the computer than working and who brutally bullied employees he didn’t like. And the jail is still fighting a lawsuit filed by an assistant supervisor who is protesting his firing for putting one officer in a dangerous chokehold during a dare and — with the help of two others — binding another officer to his chair with duct tape and stashing him in the jail elevator as a prank in 2009.

It’s been a tumultuous period that’s taken its toll on both employees and the organization — which has seen a nearly 50-percent turnover rate in the last two years — not to mention the county’s legal budget. Some say the problems were fueled by “a couple of bad apples” who have since left. Others blame it on an environment buffeted by the constant, overwhelming stress of too many inmates, too few staff members and contentious contract negotiations that have been ongoing for three years.

Today, administrators and county commissioners say the jail, as a workplace, is better. The supervisor accused of bullying is gone, as is the assistant supervisor behind the duct tape and chokehold incidents. The jail has a compliance officer who helps ensure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to. Administrators check in more often.

“I think things have definitely settled down a little bit,” said County Commissioner Elaine Makas. “I think things are getting better, that everyone’s more aware that we need to be respectful of our employees, that we need to have a professional atmosphere at the jail.”

But as two of the three sexual harassment lawsuits continue, the assistant supervisor and county fight in court over his firing, the contract battle goes on, and inmate crowding remains, others say the jail is as stressful a workplace as ever. And now, some say, employees fear losing their jobs if they attempt any of the silly stunts that once enabled them to blow off steam. 

“Morale sucks around here,” said David Trafford, corrections officer and former union president.

Harassment

The current county jail opened in 1990, a 160-bed facility to replace the old 27-bed facility that sometimes saw up to 90 inmates. The jail housed convicted criminals sentenced to serve up to 364 days behind bars, as well as people awaiting trial or bail.   

The inmate population grew over the years. The average daily prisoner count hit 124 last year. At peak times it hovers around 160 or 170, making overcrowding an issue. One weekend it went as high as 190.

The makeup of inmate population also changed. In the past, many inmates had already been sentenced and were in the Androscoggin County Jail to serve their time. In custody for months, they were often past withdrawal if they had a drug problem and were taking medication if they had a mental illness. Because they could get time off for good behavior, many worked jail jobs and tried not to cause too much trouble. 

But in recent years, in part because of jail consolidation, Androscoggin County started to get more short-term inmates awaiting trial or bail. Overall, short-term inmates are more volatile. They’re more likely to be in the midst of withdrawal or struggling with a mental illness. They’re less likely to care about behaving because it won’t have a payoff.

The jail now sees between 5,000 and 6,000 admissions every year, with the average length of stay between 14 and 21 days. The state is now studying whether the jail has adequate staffing. While inmate numbers have grown and the types of inmates have changed, the jail still has 50-something corrections employees, including 36 jail guards.

One of those guards was Sgt. Kevin Harmon.

A veteran officer, Harmon had been with the jail for years. For a time he supervised the day shift.

That’s where, some say, the trouble started.

Pranks had long been part of the jail culture, a way to relieve stress in what can be an extremely stressful environment. As the jail population grew and changed, that stress only got worse. Pranks, juvenile nicknames and horseplay were common.

“You come into work, be able to laugh and have fun and still get the job done,” Trafford said. “Everybody goes home at night, that’s all that matters. You come in, nobody gets hurt, nobody escapes, the public’s safe, the inmates are safe.”

But on Harmon’s shift, lighthearted joking gave way to something darker, according to some former and current employees, the three sexual harassment lawsuits filed and interviews conducted as part of an internal investigation. Together they describe a workplace ruled by a shift supervisor who spent his time playing video games and watching movies on his computer, taunting his subordinates and making life miserable for anyone he happened to dislike.

They allege Harmon made degrading statements to and about his officers and even others who were at the jail on business — particularly women — including that they smelled bad, had “man hands,” were “genetically flawed,” were “a piece of s***” and were fat and disgusting. In the internal investigation report, one officer said Harmon repeatedly referred to her son as “a lizard” and “it,” while several others said Harmon continually called another officer “Roo” because he said her weight made her look like a kangaroo with a pouch. 

They allege Harmon gave his pals preferential treatment while he ignored break requests, denied privileges, gave poor performance evaluations and issued career-damaging write-ups to those he didn’t like. They said he lashed out at those who slighted him in some way, telling them to die and refusing to speak to them about all but work-related issues for weeks or months at a time. Once in a while, according to the internal investigation, officers would intentionally irritate Harmon so he wouldn’t speak to them, their way of getting some relief from him. 

At various points, they allege, Harmon targeted certain people for his ire. Lisa Webster, a veteran guard who served for years on the Board of Trustees of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, was the first to file a sexual harassment lawsuit. In the internal investigation into her complaints she said Harmon taunted, harassed and humiliated her daily, sometimes getting other officers to join in. At the end of one shift, she said, he told her forebodingly to rest up because he would be working with her the next day — a lie in an apparent attempt to intimidate her.

“How this guy, Kevin Harmon, was not fired I can’t figure out,” said Guy Loranger, the lawyer representing all three women — Webster, Lisa Levesque and Elsie-Kay Banks — in their sexual harassment suits. Banks, the latest, filed her suit this spring.

Webster’s complaint was filed in late 2007 and the internal investigation — which detailed much of Harmon’s other misconduct — was completed in early 2008. Harmon was suspended for two weeks and placed on three months probation, the maximum probation allowed by contract. He was moved to the night shift so he wouldn’t have contact with Webster again. Webster quit in 2009 and later moved out of state.

Webster settled her suit in February. It is unclear for how much. Her lawyer said he was bound by a confidentiality agreement and couldn’t say, though he vehemently disputed an earlier, publicized assertion by the county’s lawyer that it was a “small monetary settlement” and that Webster signed a statement saying there was no wrongdoing. The Androscoggin County clerk said she didn’t know how much the settlement was for and referred questions to the manager of the Maine County Commissioners’ Risk Pool, which dealt with that settlement. The manager did not return calls Friday afternoon.

Harmon did not respond to requests for an interview.

Sheriff Guy Desjardins is a board member for the domestic violence group Safe Voices and said he’s sensitive to harassment of women. Desjardins said he’d had problems with Harmon before — largely because the man was blunt, upfront and lacked tact — but he was a good guard and Desjardins said the previous problems were nothing like the complaint he received from Webster.

“I have zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” Desjardins said. “There’s just no place in the workforce for sexual harassment, on any level.”

Harmon could have been fired, but Desjardins ultimately decided against it. He said Webster wanted to work apart from Harmon but didn’t want him fired. At the same time, other administrators thought Harmon was worth saving. So Harmon kept his job. 

It’s a decision Desjardins regrets. 

“There was an opportunity,” he said. “My initial reaction, to be perfectly honest with you, was that at that point he should have been terminated. And I take full responsibility for that. I think if that would have happened — I can second guess and be the Monday morning quarterback — I would say that maybe, just maybe, that duct taping issue wouldn’t have happened and the choking issue wouldn’t have happened.”

Duct tape

In 2009 Harmon began training Cpl. Patrick Gorham as his assistant supervisor. In a meeting with commissioners later that year, then-union representative Rielly Bryant said he had once warned a jail administrator not to pair Gorham with Harmon because of what he saw as Harmon’s long-standing history of intimidation, horseplay and harassment. In fact, Banks, the third woman to file a sexual harassment lawsuit, has claimed Harmon was harassing her around that time.

“I told him that placing (Gorham) in this situation, they were going to create a corporal that acted just as that sergeant (Harmon) did, and it was clear the administration did not agree with that sergeant’s methods of operation,” Bryant told commissioners.

At 11:30 p.m. on  Sept. 22, 2009, Bryant’s prediction came true. In the jail’s booking area, Gorham, Harmon and a subordinate duct-taped an officer to his desk chair, binding his arms and wrapping his head with tape. They then wheeled him into the prisoner transport elevator and sent him to another floor. The entire incident lasted about 30 minutes, with all the men involved laughing and joking throughout. At one point, a female officer walked in and Harmon, indicating the duct-taped man, warned her, “That can happen to you.” Eventually, the duct-taped officer was returned to the proper floor and he freed himself.

The incident was caught on tape by the jail’s security cameras.

A few days later the recording was brought to Desjardin’s attention. Soon, another video also surfaced. This one showed an August incident in which Gorham, on a dare, put an officer in a chokehold and choked him nearly to unconsciousness.

“That activity, it’s just not acceptable to me. . . . There’s no room for this in law enforcement,” Desjardins said.

Neither Gorham nor Harmon denied the incidents. They considered them pranks and horseplay. Desjardins considered them dangerous, potentially life-threatening acts of bullying. The chokehold, he said, could have killed the officer or caused brain damage. The duct tape incident, he said, could have ended in tragedy had another guard needed help elsewhere in the jail, had a police officer needed backup bringing in an unruly prisoner, or had there been some other emergency. 

“Things go bad very quickly in the facility,” Desjardins said. “How do you know they’re not going to call a Code Blue? How do you know they’re not going to find somebody two seconds from now hanging? And you’re going to have to wait for the elevator to go up and down, take this guy out, un-duct tape him, take him out of the chair and then respond. Or are you going to respond with the officer in the chair going up?”

On Desjardin’s recommendation and the county commission’s 2-1 approval, Gorham was fired. Harmon resigned. The subordinate involved in the duct-taping incident was suspended for a week without pay and put on probation for three months.

Gorham is working to appeal his firing, saying he didn’t deserve to lose his job over a prank and horseplay.

“A termination from employment is considered to be the death penalty for a burgeoning career,” said Gorham’s lawyer, Shawn Sullivan, in an e-mailed statement.

Aftermath

While Harmon was feared and hated by some, Gorham was generally more popular. Some people — particularly those involved with the union — say he was a good guy and his duct-tape incident got blown out of proportion. 

“It was just some guys having a good time, you know? Nobody got hurt. Everybody was on board with it. I think maybe it was jumped on without all the facts being known,” Trafford said.

Others say Harmon and Gorham were a couple of unruly, unprofessional officers who helped make the workplace miserable, and things have now improved.

“I think the the personalities and everything are so much different. I can’t say enough about Sgt. Levesque and the shift supervisors that we have,” Desjardins said.

Still others say that although Harmon and Gorham are gone, they aren’t sure if the work environment at the jail is any better.

“I think, given the series of events we ran into, that there was a culture issue,” said County Commissioner Jonathan LaBonte, who had wanted an outside agency to look into the misconduct when it came to light. “I mean, it’s been quiet for the last year or so maybe, but does that mean the culture’s changed or just we haven’t had anything rise to the level of those early incidents?”

But they all agree on one thing: The last few years have taken their toll on employees and the organization.

“I think the staff are embarrassed by some of the things that are sometimes  printed in the media, the stupid things that have been done. And understandably so,” said John Lebel, the jail administrator. “If you take pride in your position and you take pride in your operation, and you get something negative that comes across, people think that reflects on every officer within the organization. So they’re pretty hurt by it.”

Although there’s no indication that recent events have affected inmates, employee turnover has been high at the jail, with about half the staff leaving over the last two years, according to Eric Samson, who served as chief deputy and is now the jail programs director. Some of that turnover can be blamed on the stress of the job and the fact employees have been working without a contract or a raise since 2008, but some officers say the turmoil has had something to do with it.

The embarrassment and angst surge every time the old incidents make news again, which has happened a couple of times lately with the filing of Banks’ lawsuit and Gorham’s appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. In his publicized arguments to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court last month, Gorham’s lawyer told the judge that, “Worse things have happened” in the jail “and people have not gotten terminated.” The comment especially riled Desjardins.

“There are worse things? Please tell me what they are. Because I’ll investigate them. Everything that I’ve found that has come to me we’ve totally investigated and taken care of,” Desjardins said.

Sullivan, Gorham’s lawyer, did not say what those “worse things” were in court and he declined to elaborate when contacted recently, though he pointed to Gorham’s 2009 termination hearing in which Bryant, then a union representative, outlined several incidents that had occurred at the jail since 1991. In those incidents, officers resigned, were suspended, received minor punishment or were not disciplined at all, Bryant said at the time. None were fired. 

Bryant declined to comment for this story.

In addition to the toll on employees and the organization, the turmoil has taken its toll on the jail financially. In the last two years, the county jail has spent nearly $54,000 on attorney’s fees defending itself against Gorham and two of the three sexual harassment suits. It would have spent more, but the sexual harassment suits have been sent to the risk pool to be dealt with. As it stands, that $54,000 is more than the jail spent on all other legal issues in two years — including collective bargaining and union grievances — combined.

All of that has jail officials trying to make sure such incidents don’t happen again.

Administrators check in more often, Lebel said. The jail has a compliance officer who helps ensure everyone is doing their job. And Desjardins believes Harmon and Gorham’s departure has quashed any culture of misconduct that may have existed.

“I think the message was sent, clearly sent,” he said. “I think they know I care about security and I care about the job.”

But while the jail has been the subject of internal investigations, no outside group looked into the incidents and no one suggested greater changes. That concerns at least one commissioner, who isn’t sure enough has been done. 

“I have not necessarily seen reforms come before us or some awareness being raised that we’re handling situations differently,” LaBonte said.

At the same time, others believe too much has been done. They say stressed-out workers have pulled back on joking around and now fear for their jobs if they say the wrong thing. 

“It’s a pretty sad place to go,” Trafford said.

Lebel said counseling is available for stressed employees through St. Mary’s Health System’s Employee Assistance Program. He said the jail also tries to offer morale-boosting activities, including barbecues and holiday parties. He believes the biggest morale-booster will come with a new contract.

But workers, Trafford said, are still stressed. And they blow off steam at home now.

“The divorce rate in this place is just amazing,” Trafford said.   

ltice@sunjournal.com


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