The Maine State Prison in Warren is seen in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

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The Maine Department of Corrections will soon begin to ease restrictions that have limited prisoners’ movement and their ability to see loved ones since the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March, officials announced Thursday.

State prisoners will be able to have visitors and resume jobs in the community in July, though some rules and precautions that didn’t exist prior to the pandemic will still apply, according to Anna Black, a department spokesperson. And starting next week, officials will slowly allow the prison to admit new inmates from county jails and other state penitentiaries for the first time in months.

“We will be carefully monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19 as we ease certain restrictions,” said Randy Liberty, commissioner of the Department of Corrections. “The goal is to find a balance between public health and resuming standard correctional operations.”

In-person visits

State prisons shut down in-person visits on March 14, one day after Maine reported its first case of COVID-19.

Starting Monday, July 13, up to two members of the same household will be able to visit a state prisoner at a time, without touching one another, officials said. As of right now, only Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire residents will be allowed visits.

Visitors will also be required to wear face coverings during their visit and undergo a screening for COVID-19 symptoms — such as a dry cough, fever or difficulty breathing — before they come through the doors.

“While we remain cautious and vigilant in our approach to COVID-19, we recognize the need for families to see one another,” said Liberty, the commissioner.

Prisoners will still be allowed to video chat with their family and friends, and continue to receive additional free text messages and phone minutes throughout July.

Work release

Officials suspended work-release and community restitution programs, which allow inmates to work jobs outside of prison walls, on March 18. Next month, the state will gradually allow some prisons back into the community.

On Saturday, July 6, community restitution work crews, which provide labor to entities such as towns and state governments, will be allowed to resume work as long as their work assignments don’t require interaction with members of the public. Work crews, performing projects such as roadside trash pick-ups, will be limited to 10 people at once, and prisoners will be required to follow social distancing protocols and wear face coverings.

Prisoners who participate in work-release programs, which allow minimum-security inmates nearing their release date to hold jobs at local businesses, can gradually get back to work on Saturday, July 13. Up to 10 prisoners at a time may be approved for work in the community so long as their jobs are not public facing. (So they won’t be allowed to work at restaurants or retail businesses, for example.)

Transfers

The Department of Corrections has not been accepting transfers from county jails since the start of the pandemic, nor allowing prisoners to transfer between state prison facilities. Those rules will ease in late June, officials said.

County jails will be able to send some inmates to prison on a limited basis beginning June 29, accepting only 12 men and six women per week. Those inmates will be checked for symptoms of COVID-19 before being admitted and will be required to quarantine for a period of time before joining the general prison population.

Similarly, officials will allow state prisoners to move between facilities — which they might do if they achieve a different security status, for instance — on June 22, but only after the prisoner tests negative for COVID-19 within 24 hours of the transfer. The inmate will then be required to quarantine for 72 hours at the new facility.

The state prisons will stop accepting inmates from any county lockup or state prison that reports a positive case of the virus. So far there have only been four cases of COVID-19 at a Maine prison — the Maine Correctional Center in Windham — and all have since recovered. No cases have been reported at a county jail.