Maine: State prison reviews security following escape attempt

By Leanne M. Robicheau, Staff Writer
Bangor Daily News

WARREN- A high-profile escape attempt at the Maine State Prison last week has prompted corrections officials to take a second look at security, Warden Jeffrey Merrill said.

On Oct. 24, a Maine State Police tactical team armed with assault rifles arrested Susan Watland, 47, of Jackson in a parking lot outside the prison after officials were tipped about an escape plot.

Watland carried a loaded .40-caliber pistol when police apprehended her, believing she would try to enter the visiting area and hand off the weapon to her husband, who is serving 25 years for murder. The scheme allegedly involved a plan to take hostages to force an escape, according to officials.

Nobody got hurt.

But how Watland expected to get past two metal-detecting booths in the prison lobby and possibly a metal-detecting hand wand is a question that has not been answered.

One of the early recommendations from a security task force is to require medical documentation from any visitor entering the prison who wears internal or external medical devices consisting of metal, such as back braces or artificial joints, Merrill said. The idea is to reduce the probability of anyone getting in.

The warden had no knowledge of Watland's wearing any such device in an attempt to get past the metal detector, nor did law enforcement officials or her attorney.

Another suggested change: that visitors be required to stand inside the metal-detection booth and turn 360 degrees, as well as be scanned with a metal-detection wand. Visitors would be given three chances to pass the checks, he said.

The work of the task force is not finished and no final recommendations have been confirmed, he said.

On Wednesday, Merrill said visitation privileges at the prison, which were stopped for nearly a week because of the alleged escape attempt, were restored Monday.

Watland remained Thursday at the Knox County Jail pending $50,000 cash or $200,000 surety bail on charges of aiding-escape and trafficking in prison contraband (a handgun).

The aiding-escape charge carries punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000, and the trafficking charge carries punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Because the charges are felonies, Watland could choose either not to enter a plea and wait for a grand jury indictment or skip the grand jury process and agree to be charged. She has not entered a plea. The grand jury is scheduled to meet Nov. 27.

Watland's only known criminal history was smuggling tobacco into the Somerset County Jail in December 2004, slipping it to her husband, Gary Watland, 44, who was jailed there awaiting trial on his murder charge. He has been at the Maine State Prison since April 2005, for shooting and killing an acquaintance.

Following a tip on the alleged escape plot, Maine State Prison officials tapped the couple's telephone conversations on Oct. 21 and 22, in which they talked in code, implying she would bring a 10-round weapon into the prison.

"Gary told Susan that once she got in it would be up to him, and he would take over, and things could get 'dicey,"' a probable cause affidavit, dated Oct. 26, states.

The search warrants in the case have been impounded by the courts.

On Thursday, District Attorney Geoffrey Rushlau said the Knox County search warrant was for Watland's vehicle and her person, while a second search warrant was issued in another county for her home.

When Watland arrived at the prison on Oct. 24, "it appeared [Watland's] parking decision was strategic in nature," the affidavit states. "Susan Watland's vehicle appeared to be packed for a trip; her dog and cat were also located within the vehicle."

A loaded Beretta with the safety off was found on Watland and $800 in cash was found in her car, along with beer and unknown drugs, which may be valid prescriptions.

During her initial appearance and bail hearing Oct. 27, it was disclosed she receives Social Security disability payments for post-traumatic stress disorder. Defense attorney Steven Peterson of Rockport said Thursday her medical diagnosis is related to abuse in her childhood.

According to court records, Watland earns $1,250 per month and was last employed in 2004 as a massage therapist. She has a bachelor's degree in public health, and has worked for the California Department of Human Services, Peterson said in court. He said she also is licensed for physical therapy and massage in California, but not in Maine.

In the financial disclosure, Watland provided information that she sends $100 per month to her husband at the Maine State Prison, Peterson confirmed, and helps support her elderly mother in New Hampshire.

Copyright 2006 Bangor Daily News

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