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Two Fridays ago, the afternoon of March 13, Brooks Noddin received a phone call that he had a visitor. He changed into jeans and a blue, button-down shirt and walked from his cell at the Maine State Prison to a large room in another building where his dad, Bruce Noddin, sat waiting for him.
As the father and son hugged, they didn’t know it would be the last time for the foreseeable future, they said.
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Sometime over the next two hours, while the men sat talking, prison officials made the call to suspend visits to the Warren penitentiary for at least two weeks in an effort to prevent the novel coronavirus from reaching the prison. Maine reported its first case of the virus, known as COVID-19, the day before. On Wednesday, prison officials said visitations would be further postponed until at least April 8 as cases have jumped to nearly 150.
The spread of the virus has left prisoners such as Brooks, 28, in a vulnerable, conflicted position. He is now even further cut off from others. In the past the outside world provided him comfort and hope. Now it represents an imminent threat, he said in a phone call Tuesday from the prison.
Like others, he misses being able to see his family, but he worries that an outbreak inside the prison could result in even stricter isolation measures to protect the safety of inmates and staff. A lockdown, for example, would confine them inside their cells for an indefinite period of time.
“If it does get in here, they need to shut it down. I wouldn’t want to be out and about with that risk,” Brooks said, even if a lockdown prevented him from calling his loved ones or participating in programs that help him pass the time behind bars.
In the meantime, he said daily life inside the prison hasn’t changed all that much, except for a sense of “pending doom.”
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Brooks is one of several inmates closely watching the path of the virus as it sweeps across the globe, sickening thousands and creeping up the coastline, closer to Maine’s largest prison.
He started paying attention a few weeks ago, when correctional staff and inmates began disinfecting the phones, tables, chairs — “every touchable surface,” he said — in the prison more often. Brooks didn’t used to watch the news, but that’s when he began following it closely on a television in the common area outside of his cell.
At first, he and his friends mostly joked about the possibility of the virus causing the prison to go into a massive lockdown. They realized the severity of the situation when officials temporarily banned visitors, he said.
For Brooks, his primary visitor is his dad, who makes the drive from Auburn to see him once or twice a month. They are best friends, they said.
Their relationship has survived a lot, starting when Brooks was a kid and it was clear that behavioral challenges would set him down a troubled path, no matter how his parents tried to help, Bruce, 56, said. Brooks is currently serving his second bid at the Maine State Prison for violating his probation on a robbery charge in 2018 and committing new non-violent offenses, including theft and driving to endanger.
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During their visits, however, they mostly talk about their common hobbies such as skiing and mountain biking and other outdoor activities that allow Brooks to live vicariously. Lately, Brooks has been updating his dad on attending recovery meetings, said Bruce, who founded the Maine Prisoner Reentry Network, a nonprofit that helps people transition from incarceration back into the community.
“What the visits are for, if for anything, is just to maintain a connection,” Bruce said. It’s hard to achieve that over the phone and in text messages, which is the only way they can communicate now.
Being able to hug his dad, to feel that physical affection, is something Brooks will miss, he said. But it’s a sacrifice worth making if it helps keep contagion out of the prison.
Officials with the Maine Department of Corrections said they are following a phased plan for keeping the virus at bay, the first phase of which went into effect on March 8.
That’s when guards started to lock everyone into their cells 10 or 15 minutes early before daily counts, so they could spray down surfaces, according to Jeff Taylor, another inmate of the prison. That now happens three times a day, he said.
They’ve also posted information about COVID-19 symptoms on the white walls of his pod and downloaded them on the tablets that people can use to access educational programs, entertainment and send text messages, he said.
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After the virus was reported in Maine, officials limited outsiders from coming into the facility. Taylor, 41, is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts through classes provided by the University of Maine at Augusta, and those were put on hold.
“We’re happy with the measures they’re taking so we’re not locked in,” Taylor said. “They’re doing the best they can to keep this place running normal.”
In addition to his classes, Taylor also works with Bruce Noddin to help coordinate reentry efforts from within the prison — though those meetings are also on hold — and sits down with people nearing their release date to help them plan for life outside. He’s still able to move around the prison and meet with people, he said, just as Brooks has been able to use the gym, attend yoga classes and go to his recovery meetings.
Both men continue to talk to their loved ones on the outside, but it’s taken some adjustment. For instance, Taylor called his fiancee on Sunday to discuss how they will maintain intimacy in their relationship with just their words, since she won’t be able to visit him for a while. If she detects something in his tone of voice that worries her, he told her it’s OK to bluntly ask, he said.
Prison officials have not publicly said what, exactly, will happen in the event that COVID-19 shows up in the prison.
Just as people have been stockpiling groceries as they hunker down at home, Taylor has too. Earlier this month, he bought several cans of soup, tuna fish, chorizo sausages and rice from the prison commissary in case an outbreak behind bars forces him to stay in his cell for an indefinite period of time.
He would prefer not to eat the meals provided to him through a slot in the white metal door because he’s a little anxious about touching things that others have touched, he said.
There are, however, some unknowns that are harder to plan for. Life outside the Maine State Prison has changed far more drastically than life within, as society and the economy have ground to a halt.
“Just this month I’ve met with 30 people [nearing their release date], and I can’t say all of them, but nearly all of them need employment and housing,” Taylor said.
And yet, “They’re being released into an uncertain world.”