Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The Maine Department of Corrections is waiting on test results for more than 120 inmates after one tested positive at a prison in Windham, the first step in determining whether a Cumberland County correctional facility is home to the state’s next coronavirus outbreak.
While some of the nation’s largest outbreaks have happened in prisons, Maine had gone until Tuesday without even recording a positive case in a correctional facility inmate. That changed when a man in his 20s at the Maine Correctional Center developed symptoms on Sunday and tested positive on Tuesday.
Since then, the state has tested 123 inmates and 64 employees, Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said Wednesday. At least two refused, according to the department’s daily coronavirus dashboard. He expected an additional 500 people — including staff, inmates and vendors — to be tested Wednesday to complete universal testing at the prison, which had 477 inmates as of May 4.
Test results could start to come back later Wednesday, Liberty said. They likely won’t show how the virus made it into the prison — that’s the job of Maine CDC epidemiologists. But it’s unlikely the infected inmate brought it in, Liberty said, because he had been incarcerated there since March.
Jails and prisons are particularly vulnerable to becoming virus hotspots because of inmates’ close living quarters and their limited access to good hygiene and medical care. Plus, about half of Maine’s prison population are at high risk for complications from the virus because of their age and other health conditions.
The country’s four largest outbreaks, each of more than 1,100 cases, have appeared in correctional facilities, according to the New York Times.
Maine corrections officials have taken steps to guard against the virus since it officially arrived here in mid-March by shutting down outside visits, ramping up cleaning measures, not allowing staff to work at multiple facilities and requiring that they wear protective equipment while on the job. Anyone who may have the virus has been isolated and their unit locked down. The state has also taken steps to reduce its jail and prison populations.
But prisoners have raised concerns that guards have not consistently followed protocols meant to keep them safe. And representatives for correctional officers say the state needs to move toward widespread testing immediately to keep a single case from turning into a crisis.
Prisoners at the Maine State Prison in Warren and the Maine Correctional Center have said guards haven’t consistently worn face masks when they have come into close contact with prisoners and other guards, Joseph Jackson of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said. Jackson, who used to be incarcerated in Warren, talks regularly with inmates and has aired their concerns with Liberty.
“We raised that as a serious concern,” he said. “Volunteers and all programs have ceased, so the only other way that COVID can get in is staff.”
The state prison also accepts transfers from county jails, but new inmates are typically quarantined before they are mixed in with the general population, he said.
Inmates themselves have been issued two face masks and are required to wear them when they leave their “pods,” the residential wings made up of cells and a common area that house up to 60 people, Jackson said.
“When you’re in your individual pod, it’s like you’re home, so you don’t have to wear them in there,” he said.
The concerns about protective gear and hygiene match those raised in a lawsuit brought by two inmates incarcerated at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston who were unable to secure medical furloughs so they could be released during the pandemic. They allege the facility does not have the proper hygiene and social distancing capabilities to keep them safe.
The state is not using medical furloughs during the pandemic, despite 925 inmates — about half the state’s prison population — being classified as high-risk for the virus.
Jim Mackie, staff representative for AFSCME Council 93, which represents Maine correctional officers, said he was unfamiliar with the allegations in the suit but said no guards have been disciplined for not wearing protective gear, which would violate department policies.
Guards are required to wear masks as soon as they enter the workplace and additional gear such as gowns when they have physical contact with an inmate. He said the union is exploring how to address concerns around changing rooms and making it easier for guards to wash their uniforms at the facility.
But most importantly, Mackie said, the state should consider offering tests to every officer and test inmates as well, to get a sense of how far the virus has spread. Doing so could prevent the need for more extreme measures, such as not allowing residents to leave their cells for two weeks, causing stress for inmates and staff alike.
“Wherever there’s a flaw in the system, we need to find it and shut it off now,” Mackie said. “…How many ticking time bombs do we have walking around that facility that aren’t showing symptoms?”
Inmates have also spent more than two months wondering what will happen once the virus gets behind bars but received little information from correctional officials, Jackson, with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said. But he expects that will change now that it’s happened.
Likewise, prisoners have no sense of when life will return to normal, as the world on the outside begins to gradually reopen. Since the virus appeared in Maine, correctional officials have restricted some of their movement and suspended programs and outside visitors to guard against infection.
“There was a lot of anxiety raised around those issues, having no idea about the department’s plans,” he said, including when they can see their families and loved ones again.
Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested