May 20, 2020
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Corrections chief: Maine’s prisons will only test for coronavirus once it appears

Gabor Degre | bdn
Gabor Degre | bdn
Randall Liberty has been nominated to be the new commissioner for Maine Department of Corrections.

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The Maine Department of Corrections has no plans to test the state’s entire prison population for the coronavirus, even as calls for more testing of inmates intensified the day after the state saw its first coronavirus case in a prison inmate.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told the BDN in an interview Wednesday that the state would only test for the coronavirus once it pops up in individual correctional facilities. At the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where a man in his 20s tested positive on Tuesday, testing has been underway this week.

As of Wednesday evening, 148 tests had come back negative, including all 64 employees who were tested and 84 inmates, according to the Department of Corrections. Results were still pending for 39 inmates, and the state expected to test another 500 inmates, employees, contractors and others tied to the facility by the end of the week.

The calls for ramped-up testing throughout the prison system came from unions representing correctional officers and prison supervisors, as well as from two inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston who sued the state last week.

They say their rights had been violated because the state hadn’t released them from the prison for community confinement, despite medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. They added a request for universal testing at the state’s seven correctional facilities to their petition for a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday in light of the first positive inmate test.

Other states, including Maryland and New Jersey, have announced they will universally test in their prisons, but their case counts are much higher than Maine’s. The federal Bureau of Prisons has also expanded testing to asymptomatic individuals.

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. Nationwide, the four largest coronavirus outbreaks have all happened in correctional facilities, according to The New York Times.

Liberty said it was unclear how valuable universal testing would be and said doing so for the roughly 1,900 inmates and 1,100 employees in the correctional system multiple times would be “fiscally unsound,” he said.

The department plans to continue to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for prison, which recommend that symptomatic individuals be masked and placed in medical isolation. Health care professionals are advised to prioritize testing for at-risk and symptomatic individuals.

At the Maine Correctional Center, Liberty said he believed the virus had not come in through the sick inmate, who had been incarcerated since March. He did not know how the department could do more than it is doing already to prevent the virus from coming in.

“I’m not sure what the solution is,” he said. “I have to let staff go home daily, we do medical screening when they come in. There’s no easy answers to what you’re asking.”

The inmate population has fallen by 12 percent since the beginning of the year, but some advocates for prisoners have called on the state to release more. The state isn’t using medical furloughs as a way to reduce its prison population, but it has reviewed 385 inmates for community confinement since the start of the pandemic and agreed to release 103.

The Maine Service Employees Association, which represents prison supervisors, is one of the unions calling for more testing.

The state should use the expanded testing capacity it rolled out this week for those tests, said Jeff McCabe, director of politics and legislation for the union. “As the state reopens, more needs to be done to protect frontline workers,” he said. “Testing is part of that.”

Jim Mackie, staff representative for AFSCME Council 93, which represents correctional officers, made similar comments Wednesday, saying it is paramount the state figure out how the virus is getting in and “shut it off now.”

In federal court on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine attorneys representing Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale, the two medically vulnerable inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility, also called for universal testing in prisons.

Denbow and Ragsdale said in their petition that the department is unable to adequately protect inmates from the virus and is not enforcing protocols requiring employees to wear masks.

Liberty disputed that, saying he frequently travels around to the state’s correctional facilities to ensure compliance. Any violations would start with verbal warnings, he said, and progress to a reprimand if continued.

Attorneys for the state also argued that Denbow and Ragsdale have no legal basis for asking for universal testing or other wholesale changes in the way the state is running its prisons.

“The State’s interest in managing its prisons without undue interference, especially during an emergency, is paramount, and is recognized by the Supreme Court,” they wrote.

 


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