As of 1 p.m. Friday, March 13, test results show that two Maine residents have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.
Maine’s jails are taking steps to reduce the risk that its inmates and staff are exposed to the new coronavirus, including limiting the movement of inmates and reducing the number of visitors coming into the facilities.
As of midday Friday, no cases of the novel coronavirus have been identified within the state’s county jails or prisons.
Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said while jails are at a slight disadvantage because they can’t simply close their doors, they’re familiar with how to prepare for an outbreak disease among its population.
“To be quite frank, [outbreak prevention] is something that you folks are just thinking about. We live this everyday,” Morton said. “For us, while the coronavirus has its own issues and challenges, we can go back and look at our influenza practices, or our guidelines for an outbreak of [tuberculosis] or whatever it is, and really apply those practices. Obviously the challenge is I can’t shut down.”
At the Bangor-based Penobscot County Jail, which currently houses 155 inmates, visitation from family and friends has been suspended. Visitation from others who help run programming inside the facility has been reduced, according to Morton, who said the jail is reviewing these reduction levels on a weekly basis.
Morton would not say which programs have been suspended due to the reduction in visitation, but said the jail’s medication-assisted treatment program will continue, along with some educational programs.
Similar restrictions on visitations and programming are being put in place at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn, the Sun Journal reported.
Morton, who is the president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association, said county jail officials across the state are working with law enforcement agencies to reduce the number of individuals who are brought into custody. This means limiting the number of arrests that are made for crimes that are not necessarily committed against other people or pose a threat to society.
This could be done by issuing a summons instead of conducting an arrest or having the individual bailed out at a police station before being transported to jail. Morton said this is being handled on a case by case basis. It isn’t a reduction in enforcement of the law.
Inmates who are brought into the Penobscot County Jail are no longer being brought to the courthouse for arraignment. All arraignments in Penobscot County are being done by video from the facility. However, not all of the state’s county jails have the technology to conduct video arraignments.
“If they need to be brought [to court] for jury trials, that will happen. But not on the larger arraignment days when you’re moving large numbers of people,” Morton said.
Over the last two weeks, the jail has been ramping up cleaning efforts and hygiene practices, including hand washing and sanitizing, he said.
Most jails are monitoring and implementing measures on a week to week basis, Morton said. Everyday, the Maine Department of Corrections and the Maine Center for Disease Control holds a briefing that many county jails have been joining in on to determine best practices going forward, Morton said.
The Maine Department of Corrections had not released a statement on its efforts to prevent an outbreak within the state’s prisons as of late Friday afternoon.
However, The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sent a letter Friday to Gov. Janet Mills, urging the administration to protect the health and safety of all Mainers, including those who are incarcerated.
“People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health,” the letter stated.
With Maine’s federal courts announcing their closure on Friday, Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said the organization is monitoring the impact this could have on pretrial inmates being denied their right to a speedy trial. However, he said the federal closure will have a small impact on Maine inmates.
“It’s a much larger problem if the state courts decide to shut down,” Heiden said. “In the more immediate time frame we’re concerned that the jails and prisons are taking steps to operate safely and protect the safety and health of the prisons and detainees.”
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease