The Maine State Prison in Warren is seen in this April 5, 2017, file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

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Around the country, the rise of coronavirus cases is accelerating in prisons and jails. Over the weekend, the state of Ohio reported nearly 2,000 inmates have now tested positive at one prison alone, making it the largest reported source of the infection in the United States.

Here in Maine, inmates have so far been spared. But advocacy groups, health and social service providers say the state’s efforts to mitigate the risk for those who are incarcerated have fallen short, and they want more inmates released.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

In a letter to Gov. Janet Mills and Department of Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty, a coalition of more than two dozen groups, including the ACLU and the NAACP Prison Branch, said it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” an outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, occurs in Maine’s jails and prisons, where it’s nearly impossible to practice social distancing.

“There’s an extreme overcrowding situation at the Maine Correctional Center that preceded COVID-19,” said Whitney Parrish with the Health Equity Alliance, which provides direct service and advocacy for people in marginalized communities, and who is also a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

In their letter, the groups said the confined nature of correctional facilities where prisoners share cells and bathrooms with multiple people and eat side by side places them at a greater risk of contracting COVID-19. They also point out that the virus has disproportionately harmed people of color and the poor, who are overrepresented in prisons and jails.

The groups are asking the governor and the commissioner to use their authority to release more inmates, either by commuting their sentences, using medical furloughs or through supervised community confinement. In a press briefing last week, Mills addressed the issue.

“I am not issuing commutations widely or anything of that sort. And we’re taking it step by step,” she said.

Mills said the Department of Corrections has released more than 60 prisoners out of state facilities into supervised community confinement, with eligibility based on risk to public safety and length of time remaining on the person’s sentence.

“We’ve done a lot of work in preparation and planning, and we’ve made some significant steps to keep COVID-19 out of the facilities,” Liberty said.

He said those steps include ending in-person visits, screening staff every day with temperature checks, doing multiple cleanings of shared spaces in the prisons and making and distributing cloth masks for prisoners and staff.

What has also helped, Liberty said, is that that arrests by law enforcement are down, so there are fewer new prisoners.

“The sheriffs have been very gracious to stop transporting offenders, and so if they have someone in custody that has been sentenced and normally would go to a state facility, they are holding them so we don’t, sort of, cross-pollinate this,” he said.

“They are doing the best they can on the inside of the facilities with what they have and the next step is to decrease that population,” said Charlotte Warren, the House chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Warren said she has been fielding lots of emails and phone calls from relatives of prisoners who don’t have much time remaining on their sentences, but do have underlying health conditions.

“People aren’t calling me if their husband has murdered someone and saying, ‘Oh, can my husband please get out?’ The conversations I’m having are with, you know, moms of the son who has substance use disorder and is in prison for a drug charge and also happens to have asthma,” she said.

Warren said she wants to make sure that the 3,000 people sitting in Maine jails and prisons aren’t forgotten during the pandemic. So far, the jails have reduced their populations by 38 percent. She said the prisons should follow suit with a plan for releasing more inmates and a plan for supporting them once they’re released.

The advocacy groups share that view. In their letter, they said “there has been no coordinated, consistent, or transparent statewide effort to address the health and safety of incarcerated people.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.