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A federal judge is expected to rule soon on whether Maine should release two prisoners vulnerable to the coronavirus, but he urged parties on Tuesday to resolve whether all prisoners should get the same level of review before moving forward.
Lawyers for Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale, two men incarcerated at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, have alleged their constitutional and federal rights were violated because they were not granted home confinement or medical release while in state custody. The case could have wide implications for the state’s prison population.
Both prisoners have conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus. They allege the state has not enforced social distancing rules for prison staff or in common rooms. They have also said the facility does not have sufficient hygiene measures to keep them safe.
Those conditions violate the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the men argue. They are asking they be released under a medical furlough statute that allows prisoners to be released when the state cannot provide needed medical treatment. They also ask that the state evaluate over 900 other at-risk prisoners for temporary release.
U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock in Bangor said he will “quickly” rule on the temporary restraining order, which applies only to Denbow and Ragsdale. But he suggested the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the Department of Corrections could resolve the bigger question of whether all medically vulnerable prisoners should be reviewed for release without a permanent injunction.
Both parties want to protect prisoners from the virus and commended the state for having only five recorded cases — four prisoners and one state correctional employee in different facilities — in a population hard-hit by the virus in other parts of the country, Woodcock said. He also noted a ruling would determine a “winner or a loser” when a more agreeable solution could be found through mediation.
Emma Bond, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine, said one of her clients had filed an emergency bail review petition in state court in mid-April, but the case has not progressed due to the limited activity of the courts caused by the virus. Both have been unable to obtain secured community confinement, which evaluates prisoners based on how much of their sentence remains and what risk they could pose to the community.
Assistant Attorney General Jill O’Brien pushed back, saying the state has reasonably protected inmates by issuing cloth masks and varying inmate schedules for meals and smoking privileges to provide as much opportunity for social distancing as possible. She also argued social distancing is not a medical treatment inmates are entitled to.
“Social distancing, just like hand washing and covering your cough, is not a medical treatment,” she said. “It is done by laypeople, it requires no medical expertise. The proper standard here is not whether the department is denying medical treatment by not letting people social distance.”
Watch: Testing at Maine correctional centers