The Androscoggin County Sheriff's Office in Auburn pictured in August. Credit: Callie Ferguson / BDN

Twenty-eight prisoners at the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn went on hunger strike yesterday to protest a lack of safety precautions around COVID-19, prompting the sheriff to say he would test every inmate as soon as possible.

Prisoners of two minimum-security housing units refused meal trays from Monday morning to Tuesday afternoon in an effort to draw attention to their concerns about the availability of testing for COVID-19. They were also concerned about an increase in the number of sleeping cots in their units, which had stoked fears about their ability to socially distance, Sheriff Eric Samson said.

The mass testing should begin as soon as the jail gets approval from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, he said. Though the measure doesn’t address every concern the inmates have about their conditions, it brought the protest to an end.

“I was the one who told everyone to do it for this reason, so I’m sure if that happens, it will get them to stop,” Ramel L. Sheppard, the prisoner who organized his fellow inmates to stop eating, said in an interview. An hour later the sheriff contacted the Bangor Daily News to announce the strike had ended.

Since the pandemic began, the jail has only tested inmates with symptoms, inmates being discharged into congregate settings or if an inmate requested a test, Samson said.

But a recent outbreak at the York County Jail, which sickened 48 inmates and 19 employees, as well as 20 household contacts of people who work in the building, spurred Sheppard to go beyond writing another grievance complaining about the jail’s conditions and forgo food until the administration met his demand for greater testing, he said Tuesday. He has been incarcerated since June, he said.

“I see what happened [in York County]. No swabbing, no mask wearing,” Sheppard said, adding the same was true from what he saw at the Androscoggin County Jail until this past month, when the York outbreak spurred greater mask wearing in Auburn. In York County, the jail administration had prohibited masks until the infections began, the Portland Press Herald reported.

In addition, inmates live and sleep in close quarters, which can help spread germs. Recently, jail staff set up three sleeping cots in the dayroom of one housing area to accommodate three new inmates who forced the jail to exceed its 160-bed capacity, stoking fear in inmates such as Sheppard, the sheriff said. Some of the inmates were also upset with the quality of the mattresses, Samson said.

“They’re just checking for outside symptoms,” Sheppard said of the jail’s symptom-screening protocols, fearing that an asymptomatic person would infect the jail’s general population.

The jail places newly admitted prisoners in quarantine cells for five to 10 days before they are sent upstairs to the general population, the sheriff said. People may still be contagious, but the jail can’t always hold people for a longer duration due to capacity limitations, Samson said.

Jails drastically cut their populations at the start of the pandemic in March, but their numbers have steadily crept back up as society reopened. The Androscoggin County Jail population fell to just 86 people in mid-May, but its numbers have climbed back toward the jail’s 160-person capacity since then, hovering just above that mark since the first week of September, according to data provided by the Maine Department of Corrections.

At 163 people, the jail’s population is as high as it was before the coronavirus appeared in Maine.

“We don’t decide who stays here and who doesn’t,” Samson said, noting that police decide when to arrest people, and judges set their bail amounts. However, the sheriff acknowledged that the striking inmates may have wanted to send a message to people beyond their immediate jailers.

Samson said that plans to expand testing at the jail have been in the works for a few weeks.

Yesterday’s hunger strike spurred them to act.

“For these purposes, it accelerated when we were going to do it, but it was always our intention to do the testing,” the sheriff said.

The effort will be underway as soon as state public health officials confirm that the state laboratory, which would process the tests, will accept swabs the jail already has on hand. The jail’s medical provider sent its previous tests to a private lab for processing.

Samson added that the Maine Department of Corrections conducted a random check of the jail’s compliance with pandemic precautions last week, and the facility passed.

Sheppard, however, felt the jail should have acted on its own far more quickly and that it shouldn’t have taken a hunger strike to bring about changes, he said.

“It shouldn’t have taken that, especially when you see what happened with York,” he said.

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.