Credit: George Danby

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COVID-19 could turn Maine’s jails, prisons and youth detention centers into death traps and place greater stress on our health care infrastructure if our government fails to act swiftly.

Gov. Janet Mills’ stay-at-home order recognizes separation and isolation are our best protection, along with good hygiene, exercise, and a healthy diet.

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

But prisoners are unable to comply with these guidelines, even though they face higher rates of chronic and terminal illness. They live in close proximity and share multiple communal spaces. The protective bubble of isolation is punctured daily by staff. Basic cleaning supplies are contraband, and healthy food and attentive health care are generally not an option.

Maine’s front-line health care workers are worried about a deficit in protective equipment and hospital capacity. In rural communities, where most of our detention facilities are located, they’re struggling with slashed hours and pay ahead of the expected surge in patients.

If our goals are to reduce the spread of COVID-19, save lives, and limit the demand for protective equipment and hospitals, we must release as many incarcerated people as possible.

Experts in public health and criminal justice here, and around the country, are warning against our situation. COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire in jails and prisons across the United States.

A corrections officer at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, a Portland police officer, and a staffer in the Kennebec County District Attorney’s office have all tested positive. Some prisoners at Maine State Prison are quarantined.

Rather than use their sweeping authority to stop the spread of infection behind bars, our government has dithered over a few releases spread over several weeks. Meanwhile, other states are making strong progress releasing people while crime rates drop.

Mills can rapidly reduce the state prison population today. Article V of the Maine Constitution empowers her to grant reprieves, commutations, and pardons for adult and youth prisoners. Her authority is even protected from interference by other branches of government.

Maine’s corrections commissioner, police, district attorneys, judges, and sheriffs enjoy enormous discretion in arrests, charging, sentencing, probation violations, community confinement, medical furloughs, and plea deals.

They can begin by targeting the most vulnerable: elderly, youth, pregnant, and immunocompromised prisoners for release. An estimated 60 to 80 percent of people in our prisons have a substance use disorder, which can significantly suppress the immune system and increase a person’s risk of respiratory infection and pneumonia.

Maine’s jails and prisons have suspended visitation. Prolonged lockdowns may be the next feeble attempt to reduce the spread of infection. These measures won’t surmount the risk posed to prisoners but they will have serious negative consequences for their wellbeing.

Lockdowns are extremely isolating. Prisoners are only let out of their cells for an hour or two per day, and they lose access to important programs and services.

Phone calls and text messages would help overcome those conditions, but the economic crisis will make it harder for loved ones to fund their accounts. The same goes for commissary, which prisoners use to buy hygiene products and supplement meals.

The routine failure to provide adequate medical care to incarcerated people in Maine makes our situation even more dire. The Department of Corrections faces a class-action lawsuit for failing to provide hepatitis C treatment to hundreds of incarcerated people. And watchdogs have warned of the health care provided to children at Long Creek Youth Development Center.

Four former employees of Wellpath (once known as Correct Care Solutions and which provides medical care in state prisons) filed complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission, alleging they were fired in retaliation for complaining about the quality of medical care.

It is no surprise that incarcerated people across the country are responding to their neglect by protesting for humane treatment. That won’t need to happen here if our government lives up to its responsibility to those it chooses to incarcerate and releases them out of harm’s way.

Brian Sonenstein of Portland is a journalist who writes about prisons, including for the Portland Phoenix.

Watch: Why the Maine CDC breaks down coronavirus cases by county, not town

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