Since Nov. 1, officers from Maine Department of Corrections' Special Operations Group, a tactical team formed in 2013, have been patrolling inside Maine State Prison on a daily basis accompanied by dogs and armed with shotguns. This is the first time weapons, these loaded with less-than-lethal rounds, have been allowed among the general population.

A prisoner advocacy group, a civil organization and some inmates have raised concerns that a military-style presence in the prison could increase tensions and have a negative effect on inmates with mental illness or PTSD, and that weapons could get into the wrong hands. (See story here).

Special Operations Group Commander Mark Clevette met with us Jan. 21 to talk about the evolution of SOG and the reasons behind the decision to use a high-risk security patrol at the prison.

Before there was SOG, there was CERT, the Corrections Emergency Response Team, which Clevette also commanded. That team was manpower-intensive — it was once approved for 50 positions — and used "old-school" tactics, Clevette said, by which he meant controlling crowds or rioters with batons, shields and chemical agents, and going hands-on with disruptive inmates.

In 2009, when an inmate held the prison librarian and another inmate hostage, CERT was not trained or equipped to deal with the problem. Clevette said the Department of Corrections called the State Police Tactical Team in, and when they arrived three hours later, there was some butting of heads about who was in charge. Both agencies were also concerned that the tactical team was not trained to deal with incidents in a correctional setting, which they viewed as a liability.

After that incident, DOC started to consider how CERT could be improved so it could handle any incidents that might arise inside the prison without calling for outside help. US Corrections Special Operations Group (US C-SOG), a Virginia-based private company that offers corrections-specific security training, came up to consult, at no cost, and offered recommendations. The DOC slowly built up CERT's training and equipment. Then in 2013, it contracted with US C-SOG to train a group of 20 DOC corrections officers and supervisors who volunteered to become the first Special Operations Group, replacing CERT.

"It makes sense to do more with less," Clevette said. "It's the trend throughout corrections; you see staffing levels getting cut all over the country. To maintain a 30- to 50-man CERT team is just not feasible."

Clevette said the main reason DOC chose to go with US C-SOG training was the tactics it trained officers to use. Whereas CERT would throw manpower and inconsistent, non-measurable force at a situation, SOG's tactics are hands-off, measurable and have a greater degree of accountability.

CERT would respond to a crowd-control situation by sending in 30 to 40 officers with shields, helmets, batons and chemical agents.

“If they have to deal with a problem, inmates get hit with batons. And it's all on film. No matter how it's done, it's not going to look good,” Clevette said.

The force is not measurable, he said, because one officer swinging a baton at his 50-percent force is not the same as another officer hitting with 50- percent force. Also, because force is applied inconsistently on members of the crowd, in a critique of the video recording of an incident it is conceivable that one might find more force being applied to minorities, even if that was not intended.

"The way we do it now, it's all done at a distance and it's all measurable," Clevette said. "So by me using a shotgun with a less-lethal round, every round that's coming out of that shotgun is coming out with the same velocity. It's hitting with the same intensity, no matter if I'm shooting at a white person, or an Oriental person, they're all getting hit with 650 feet per second."

CERT would respond to a disruptive inmate with manpower as well. Clevette said three or four officers might pile on top of an inmate, and in the process the inmate generally goes into self-preservation mode, pulling inward, for example, which would often get misinterpreted as resisting. Then the officers would apply more force, and people would get hurt.

Instead, SOG officers with shotguns can stand at a distance and do not have to go hands-on with a prisoner to get him to comply. This, he said, is safer for the staff and safer for the inmate.

"Once the person puts his hands in the air of if we hit them with a round and they go down, it's over," Clevette said. "That's when we can stop immediately. We don't misread somebody going into self-preservation state."

SOG is also more accountable for the use of force because the officers wear body cameras and everything is recorded. Lasers on the shotguns show exactly where the officer intends a round to go.

High-risk security patrol

US C-SOG also recommended a "high-risk security patrol," officers in full gear who patrol daily, for the Maine State Prison. There were 26 other corrections facilities in the country with high-risk security patrols in place, the first of which began operating in 2007, and DOC officials visited and consulted with several of them before deciding to go with one here, Clevette said.

They visited jails in Spartanburg and Charleston counties in South Carolina, and spoke with administrators at jails in Berks County, Pa., and Laudoun County, Va. Each recommended the patrols as a solution to staffing shortages. Clevette said that at the time Maine State Prison had 50 unfilled staff positions.

US C-SOG trained the SOG team to perform high-risk security patrols. While there are eight SOG officers employed at Maine State Prison, officers from the whole SOG team, even those employed at other facilities, rotate to carry out patrol duty at the prison.

Some have suggested that there is not enough violence or threat of violence at the prison to necessitate the high-risk security patrol. But Clevette said he looks at SOG's presence as an insurance policy. Though the DOC's violent incident mapping data shows relative calm at the prison for the past couple of years, Clevette believes that is the SOG effect. Before then, he said, "It was increasingly getting more violent.

"Before we came in and did the initial training, the place was pretty ramped up, to the point that the administration felt that there was going to be a problem any time. Once inmates saw SOG training, it kind of quieted everything down… It acted more as a deterrent."

Some inmates, he said, particularly among the older population, have told him they feel safer with the security patrol there, because it has reduced some of the strong-arming and bullying that had been going on.

In the three months the patrol has been operating in the prison, the officers have not had to defuse any violent situations and no rounds have been fired. To Clevette, this does not bring its purpose into question; rather, it is the deterrent effect that the team is going for.

"We do not go in like cowboys itching for a problem," Clevette said, adding that if an officer exhibits aggressive tendencies in training, he is dropped from the program, which he said has happened.

"It's something I preach, and so did C-SOG:  'You guys are not going in there to be the tough guys,'" Clevette said. "'You're going to be professional and be a presence.'"