Jail problems nearly boil over after Maine county declares emergency amid COVID outbreak
Staff morale is at a 30-year low, and even the sheriff is working shifts to keep the jail running
By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND, Maine — The Cumberland County Jail is in an unprecedented crisis, pushing its staff and potentially its inmates toward a breaking point.
An outbreak of the coronavirus has about 300 inmates in lockdown for all but one hour a day, when they are let out to shower.
Officers have resigned in droves, forcing the dwindling staff that remains to work thousands of overtime shifts this year. Morale is at a 30-year low, and more resignations may be coming.
Command staff, including the sheriff, are working shifts to keep the jail running.
One county commissioner already has suggested the county may have to temporarily close the facility, the state's largest pre-trial lockup, if the outbreak and conditions do not improve.
Last week, the county declared an emergency at the jail, which it had never done before. Officials refused to explain the legal basis, breeding a conflict with the corrections union that is sure to grow if the sheriff uses the declaration, as he has said he will, to disregard parts of the union contract.
Union leaders say the crisis is the result of years of neglect of the workforce, brought to a head by the outbreak that began when four unvaccinated medical workers came to the jail to work, the sheriff said.
According to spokespeople from the state Department of Health and Human Services and Armor Health, the medical contractor at the jail, they were not required to receive the vaccine like most every other medical worker in the state because jails are not considered health care facilities.
When the outbreak first was made public, 10 inmates and 13 staff members had the virus. On Wednesday, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said the most recent round of testing showed seven staff and nine inmates are positive.
He did not say when that testing took place, only that more tests are planned this week and next.
While jail officials expect some employees to return to work soon after they recover from the virus and other types of leave, officers have been leaving the jail in a steady stream for years. Wages and working conditions, meanwhile, make it hard to attract replacements.
Making matters worse, only about 40 percent of inmates are vaccinated, even though the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available to them. The vaccination rate among corrections staff is not much better, at 50 percent, with 38 employees still unvaccinated. Some believe virus conspiracy theories, one jail official said in a public meeting.
The situation is volatile, and the county could be legally liable if someone at the jail becomes seriously ill or dies, Commissioner James Cloutier, who brought up the possibility of a temporary closure, said during an emergency public meeting last week.
"We need to know that you, we, all of us know how we're going to close up the shop if we have to," Cloutier said. " I think we need to be confident that we're not going to be faced with chaos if we do end up with a step-down (in conditions) from here."
The jail is not accepting any new inmates, and local police must drive nearly an hour to deposit prisoners at other facilities.
To reduce the jail population, the sheriff may soon end revenue-generating contracts with the federal government and other jails to house their prisoners. Sheriff's deputies and members of the Portland Police Department may be pulled in to work jail shifts, he told commissioners.
Jail officials have tried to play down the crisis.
One jail captain urged the county and sheriff to soft-pedal media outlets on the severity of the situation.
Prisoners read and watch the news, he said, suggesting there could be a security threat if inmates realized how overworked and outnumbered officers are.
"I just don't want them to know how staffing-depleted we are," Capt. Donald Goulet said in public meeting that was broadcast live and is viewable on YouTube. "If you can, figure out a way to sugarcoat this a little bit so when it goes out it doesn't sound like we're in dire straits."
DIRE AND DANGEROUS
But dire and dangerous is exactly how the regional director for the National Corrections Employee Union, which represents the corrections officers, described jail conditions.
"This is the worst it's ever been," said William Doyle. "They should have listened to the unions three contracts ago when we said bump up the wages."
Doyle is also troubled by the unexplained authority behind the declaration of emergency. At a meeting between county and union officials on Oct. 1, he said the county refused to cite statute or precedent.
County Manager James Gailey also refused to do so when asked by a reporter.
"You can do some research on that one," Gailey wrote Wednesday, and then refused to answer follow-up questions.
In the emergency declaration passed by the commissioners last week, they rely on "powers vested through the statutes of the State of Maine, County Charter and County Administrative Regulations, and common law authority to protect the public's health, safety and welfare in the event of an emergency." It's unclear whether the document was vetted by legal counsel.
The jail has recently run close to or below minimum staffing plans, which are written by the sheriff and approved by the state Department of Corrections. The jail has about 62 correction officers and about 300 inmates, down from about 500 pre-pandemic.
Most of the roughly 300 inmates are pre-trial and have not been convicted of crimes. The lockdown not only keeps them in their cells for 23 hours a day but reduces their access to outside programming, which includes therapeutic and rehabilitative services. Most of the people housed there suffer from mental health problems, substance use disorder or both.
IN CELLS 23 HOURS A DAY
Typically when the jail has more staff, inmates not housed in the highest security unit have freedom to move around common areas within their pods, interact with other incarcerated people in their unit, and meet with therapy groups.
The lockdown and emergency status is authorized to continue through October or until jail administrators receive two consecutive negative coronavirus tests for every person in the facility. Commissioners, however, could end the emergency early if conditions or staffing improves.
Meanwhile, local police departments that are now forced to transport those they arrest to York County Jail in Alfred and Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset may have to look for ways to take fewer people into custody, the sheriff said.
While the sheriff said there are three recently hired corrections staff starting soon and 16 more in the application pipeline, Doyle, the union representative, said there is no guarantee the candidates will make it through the hiring and training process, which includes a polygraph exam, background check and a five-week training course at the state Criminal Justice Academy.
Correction officer pay starts at $23.23 per hour and increases to $24.05 per hour after six months. All corrections officers are getting an additional $3 per hour in the state of emergency. But union officials say it isn't enough.
This year alone, 21 corrections officers resigned, the sheriff said. Since 2020, that number may be as high as 47, said Ryan Finch, a former union steward who resigned this March and took a pay cut to work at the post office.
Dennis Welch, the president of NCEU Local 110, has worked at the jail for more than 30 years and said he's spent years telling county and jail officials that they need to raise pay to retain staff.
"I said, hiring is going to be tough, what can we do to keep the staff we have?" Welch said. "And I got nothing back but crickets."
The jail's budget authorizes 129 positions. About 60 correction officers now work there. At one point at the end of September, at the peak of the outbreak, only about 45 full-time corrections officers were available, according to figures provided during a public meeting.
To keep the jail running, administrators have relied on "force over" shifts, in which employees are informed near the end of their workdays that they must stay at work for more hours. That's happened 2,132 times so far this year, said Joyce, the sheriff, noting that some extra shifts can be as short as one hour. In all of 2019, there were 628 forced overtime shifts.
Corrections staff are paid time and a half for those shifts, but the "force-overs" sow chaos in their personal lives as they scramble, for instance, to find childcare, said Welch, the union president.
Administrators also sometimes use mandatory overtime, in which staff get to chose their extra shifts.
That's happened 500 times this year, Welch said. Overtime once was coveted because of the extra cash, but it isn't any longer — and the union recently negotiated a weekly limit of 72 hours worked.
The poor conditions inside for the incarcerated people have altered the way detainees think about the criminal cases against them, one defense attorney said. While the state has the burden to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, some are taking guilty pleas.
"They are more desperate because they want out," Joe Mekonis said. "Jails are full, and courts are down to a drip."
Portland criminal attorney Tina Nadeau, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that while the lockdown may be required for security, it is also inhumane, especially for clients who rely on the support of outside groups that provide therapy and rehabilitative services to the jail population.
"It is a depressing situation with no end date," Nadeau wrote in a statement. "Whatever the (district attorney), judges, defense counsel and the jail can do to reduce the jail population needs to be done."
(c)2021 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)