The Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office. Credit: Callie Ferguson / BDN

For the second time in two months, several inmates at Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn are on hunger strike in a fight to strengthen COVID-19 protections in the facility.

Three inmates independently confirmed to the Bangor Daily News that they were on hunger strike on Monday in an effort to pressure the jail administration to increase safety measures at the facility. They also said they lacked confidence that the administration was properly caring for them.

Jail Administrator Jeffrey Chute said that jail officials had adequately responded to requests made by inmates to prevent COVID-19 within the jail walls.

“The concerns the participating inmates brought up were addressed and replied to,” Chute said.

However, inmates disagreed, and one said they had given a list of demands to jail officials on Monday asking for enhanced safety precautions, including access to more soap and hand sanitizer.

READ MORE ON COVID-19 IN JAILS

Calvin Footman, an inmate who spoke with the BDN, said that inmates had gone without proper access to soap until they began to strike on Monday. Inmates are able to buy soap at the jail canteen, but not everyone can afford to do so, Footman said.

In a statement to the BDN, inmate Ramel L. Sheppard — who organized last month’s protest — said that inmates distrusted jail officials’ statements on COVID-19 and wanted more tangible evidence of the spread of infection and testing within the facility, including seeing their results in writing. He referenced the impending hunger strike.

Sheppard said inmates only wanted personnel from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention or other public health officials to test them for COVID-19 due to their distrust of the jail administration’s handling of the virus.

A grievance sent by Sheppard to jail administration on Nov. 8 and obtained by BDN accused jail officials of not showing him the findings of his COVID-19 test.

A classification officer responded on Nov. 9 that the test results had been provided to Sheppard orally, and that he could get more information about his test from the Maine Department of Corrections.

Eleven COVID-19 cases have been confirmed among inmates, four of which were identified on Wednesday, Chute said Wednesday.

Three jail staff members also tested positive for the virus around the end of October, a spike in cases that the Maine CDC classified as an outbreak. Chute said no additional staff members have tested positive since then.

That outbreak was the first time COVID-19 was reported within jail walls. It is unclear if the staff cases are linked to the inmates testing positive.

Chute denied an allegation from inmates that an inmate who tested positive was not removed from the general population. Chute said the individual was placed in a quarantine as soon as he reported symptoms, where he remains today.

The protest is the second time in two months that inmates have conducted a hunger strike due to COVID-19. In October, 28 prisoners refused food for more than a day to call attention to their demand for more testing and complaints about the inability to socially distance within their units.

That strike came to an end after Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson promised mass testing for the jail’s 148 inmates. Inmates had previously only been tested under certain circumstances, including if they showed signs of the virus.

Group spaces like prisons and jails often lead to close contact between inmates and staff that can allow the virus to spread quickly. As of Nov. 10, 182,776 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in America’s prison and jails, according to The Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project said that Maine had the 14th lowest rate of prison COVID-19 cases, with 125. No COVID-19-linked deaths have been reported among prison inmates and staff.

Androscoggin has had the highest COVID-19 rate of Maine’s 16 counties as of Tuesday, according to Maine CDC data. There have been 9,519 confirmed and probable cases and 170 deaths since the pandemic reached Maine in March.