The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
A federal judge in Bangor ruled Monday that there are too few coronavirus cases in state prisons to warrant reviewing every inmate at higher risk from the virus for release without further evidence that their rights are being violated.
U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock denied a temporary restraining order requested by Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale, two inmates at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, that would have required the Maine Department of Corrections to review the cases of all medically vulnerable inmates and release them to give them the ability to social distance during the pandemic.
[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]
Woodcock wrote that there are too many outstanding discrepancies between the inmates’ descriptions of their living conditions and the state’s to order the release of the prisoners quickly, which would “fundamentally alter central details of the Department’s COVID-19 response.”
The ruling means the case may move to a more traditional trial format, with both parties presenting evidence and testimony, before the judge will make his ruling. It’s a blow to the plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, who argued that a speedy ruling was necessary to protect the inmate population from getting sick.
Woodcock wrote that he was not convinced the situation in Maine’s prisons was dire enough to require medically vulnerable inmates to be released. Only five individuals — four inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and one employee at the Bolduc Correctional Center in Warren — have tested positive.
“The Court is not prepared — prior to an evidentiary hearing and without a showing that disaster is truly imminent — to substitute its judgment for that of the MDOC and Commissioner Liberty when it comes to administration of their facilities,” Woodcock wrote.
Nationwide, prisons, where inmates are housed in close quarters, have seen some of the country’s largest coronavirus outbreaks. While Maine’s county jails have aggressively reduced their populations in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Maine’s state prison system hasn’t reduced its population as dramatically.
Both men who sued the state alleged their constitutional and federal rights were violated because they were not granted home confinement or medical release while in state custody. They said the state has not enforced social distancing rules for prison staff or in common rooms, and does not have sufficient hygiene measures to keep them safe. Both men have medical conditions that could put them at special risk from the coronavirus.
The Department of Corrections has denied these accusations. It has resisted using medical furlough to release prisoners during the pandemic, saying it is legally bound to only release those for whom they cannot provide the appropriate care. It has only released 95 prisoners through its supervised community confinement programs, which has restrictions.
Woodcock praised the Department of Corrections for its virus response last week and has urged both parties to seek mediation in the case. But he said the questions about how much social distancing is available and enforced within prisons, as well as access to needed hygiene products, need to be answered before he can weigh in.
He pointed to social distancing as an example, saying “it may be true … that it is effectively impossible to physically distance at MDOC facilities and that for the medically vulnerable, physical distancing is medically necessary” during the pandemic.
“But the degree to which release of incarcerated individuals constitutes a ‘reasonable accommodation’ within the meaning of the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and the Rehabilitation Act depends on the resolution of these factual questions,” he wrote.
Watch: Testing at Maine correctional centers