AUBURN — A pair of plug-in gadgets with bright yellow handles have given the Androscoggin County Jail a jolt.
“The atmosphere has changed,” said Sgt. Reggie Littlefield, a shift supervisor inside the jail. “They know we’ve got them.”
The devices are state-of-the-art Tasers. Guided with laser sights, they can deliver a painful shock up close or as far away as 25 feet.
“They work,” said Littlefield, who has yet to fire on an inmate. So far, the only people to receive the shocks from the new guns have been the officers, firing on each other in training.
About half endured a hit so they could experience it.
“It’s uncomfortable,” Littlefield said. But the pain doesn’t linger. “When the power’s off, the pain is done.”
Traditionally, jails are a weapons-free area.
Guns are strictly forbidden in any Maine jail or prison. In fact, before any armed officer may enter, guns must be locked away. The same goes for impact weapons such as batons or blackjacks.
“When I started, we had nothing,” said Jeff Chute, who started in the mid-1990s and now serves as the jail’s assistant administrator.
Since then, jails have introduced Mace, and every Androscoggin County corrections officer carries a canister of the tear gas spray.
There are problems with it, though. Mace requires clean-up, often strikes the sprayer and can linger for hours.
And they can be too gentle as a deterrent.
After a recent fight inside the jail that left one officer with a black eye and another with a severely sprained finger, the county’s safety committee began looking for alternatives.
County Commissioner Elaine Makas, who sits on the committee, asked about Tasers. Chute went to work, trying to answer her questions.
He learned that about half of Maine’s county jails have Tasers and each one saw a decline in problems when they were introduced.
Makas and Chute went to the county commission for help, finding money to pay the nearly $5,000 price tag with a Justice Department grant.
They arrived at the start of April. A six-hour class taught by a certified in-house instructor followed. As a safeguard to both officers and inmates, cameras are built into the handles of both Tasers. Whenever they are turned on, they record the whatever happens, even in the dark.
Chute hopes to eliminate the annual two or three workers compensation claims that are filed each year by officers who get hurt on the job.
“There is no doubt that this will save some of those claims,” he said. He is unsure how deeply they will affect inmates, though.
Stories have begun circling of inmates calming from nothing more than an unsnapped Taser holster, Makas said.
“Many of them have been Tasered or they have seen friends Tasered,” Littlefield said.
It’s very painful, but the only lasting effects are coincidence, he said.
“The biggest injury comes from what you hit when you fall down,” Littlefield said.