Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton (center) addresses county commissioners in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

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AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine sheriffs are seeking a return to normal operations by transferring certain jail inmates back to state custody, but they are facing resistance from Gov. Janet Mills and are worried about testing capacity and supplies of protective gear.

Jails and prisons have seen some of the biggest outbreaks in the country due to their close living quarters. In Maine, they have remained relatively unscathed so far, but jail populations are starting to swell as arrests have begun to increase with court activity resuming.

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

Maine has found four cases at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham since its first case was discovered last week. Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said in a recent update that the department will discuss retesting the population in the future. He has said the department will not universally test facilities unless a case is detected.

The Maine Department of Corrections recommended that county jails adhere to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on cleaning what to do if there may be a case, along with its own pandemic plans, said spokesperson Anna Black. But it has not been keeping track of testing in jails and sheriffs are allowed to make their own policies around how new arrivals are screened.

However, the state flexed its influence over the jails on May 15, when the Democratic governor released an executive order allowing the department to bar transfers of inmates who are technically in state custody from county jails back to state prisons.

In a letter sent to Liberty on May 15, Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, the president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, said the jails have been holding onto state inmates to reduce potential exposure to the virus. He cited the court system’s return to sentencing and the Mills administration’s move to reopen the state as indicators that the practice could be lifted.

Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said allowing transfers would have “ran counter” to the governor’s response plan. Morton declined to comment further on the order besides saying the association is continuing to work with the Department of Corrections.

Despite no prescribed protocols, there have been no reported coronavirus cases among county jail inmates, said Mary-Anne LaMarre, the executive director of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association. Just one jail employee is believed to have tested positive — an Aroostook County jail employee in early April, Sheriff Shawn Gillen said.

The jails in Maine’s three most populous counties all screen incoming inmates with a questionnaire, vitals check and temperature reading before allowing them in. In Cumberland County, where the virus has hit the hardest, all new inmates are held in a 14-day quarantine pod, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said. Any potential cases are sent to a depressurized medical cell.

Joyce worried that the state’s testing strategy and the supply of protective gear would not be enough to protect inmates and employees if the virus made its way in.

Joyce had asked the Maine CDC for one of its Abbott Laboratories rapid-testing machines in mid-April, saying the quick results could provide relief to his staff and allow the jail to test homeless individuals who cycle in and out of the facility. He said the state has requested a meeting to discuss the request.

In York County, the much smaller facility is testing every individual that comes to the jail due to a partnership with MaineHealth’s NorDx Laboratories, Sheriff William King said. Anyone who is suspected of being sick is taken to a hospital during an initial screening similar to the one in Cumberland. He declined to release the number of tests conducted, citing security reasons.

In Penobscot County, people are only tested if they exhibit signs of the virus or indicate they may be exposed, Morton said. He said the jail had a 30-day supply of protective equipment, but was unsure if local testing resources would be adequate if an outbreak occurred and the facility wanted multiple rounds of testing.

“I’m not totally sold that we would have enough,” he said.

Watch: Testing at Maine correctional centers

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