Maine jails, prisons begin inmate releases in light of COVID-19
Officials have reduced jail populations by hundreds, though the state DOC is slower in approving releases
By Megan Gray
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND, Maine — Officials across Maine have reduced the number of people in county jails by hundreds in anticipation of the spread of coronavirus.
The state Department of Corrections has also started to release some adults and juveniles from prisons, but that change has been slower and less dramatic than in jails.
There has not yet been any public report of a confirmed coronavirus case in a Maine jail or prison. But advocates across the country have warned that an outbreak could be severe in the close quarters of a correctional facility. Officials in other states are releasing thousands of people from jails and prisons, hoping to reduce the outbreak risk for both inmates and staff.
“If there is an outbreak in one of our jail facilities, and they’re crowded, then it’s going to be very difficult and very expensive for the jails to handle all of the medical needs of the inmate population,” said District Attorney Andrew Robinson, who is the head prosecutor in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties.
But some say the response needs to be faster and more expansive to prevent disaster.
“Once it hits the jails and the prisons, there’s going to be no turning back,” said attorney Tina Heather Nadeau, who is the president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It’s going to be a mess, and people are going to die.”
Nadeau criticized Maine Department of Corrections officials for being too slow and not transparent enough in their response. “DOC, from my standpoint, has done little to nothing to prevent this bomb from going off in all their facilities,” Nadeau said.
Sheriffs in at least two counties – Cumberland and York – have said an inmate in each jail has tested negative for the disease.
The Department of Corrections declined multiple interview requests last week. A written update from Commissioner Randall Liberty on Friday evening outlined a phased approach to the pandemic, and he listed steps taken in the prisons to prevent the introduction of the virus.
But the commissioner did not answer questions about whether any staff or inmates have been tested for the disease. A spokeswoman also did not answer a follow-up question about testing via email Friday evening.
Data from the Department of Corrections shows that county jails reduced their overall population by nearly 20 percent over three weeks.
On Feb. 28, more than 1,670 people were incarcerated in Maine’s 15 county jails. That number was down to 1,350 by March 20.
“We are trying to review bail orders to make sure that at least in these challenging times, only the people who absolutely need to be incarcerated pending trial are incarcerated,” Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen said in a conference call last week.
The majority of those inmates are pretrial and held on bail. Some prosecutors and defense attorneys are reviewing cases for people who could be released because they are not a risk to public safety, and they have been amending bail agreements to allow those people to leave custody. The courts have increased the number of hearings for in-custody people.
“We want to make sure that nobody is subjected to a health risk that none of us were contemplating when we were making decisions about bail,” Robinson said.
Police are also relying more heavily on summonses than arrests if a case does not involve a threat to public safety, so fewer people are coming into the jails than usual.
“Instead of 15 to 20 people coming through our door a day, we’re getting five to six,” said Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton.
But the response has also varied in ways between local officials.
Some sheriffs, for example, are using their discretion to grant early release for sentenced inmates. Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said Friday that his office is reviewing the people who are scheduled for release in the next two weeks, and at least two inmates have gone home early as a result.
“We look at their past history, we look at their behavior while in the facility,” Samson said. “And if we find some that are low-risk, if they’re due to be released in the next two weeks, we’re looking to release them out.”
But others, like York County Sheriff Bill King, is not yet considering that step. The York County Jail had more than 150 inmates in the first week of March, but King said on Friday that the population is down to nearly 100.
The sheriff said that change happened because of the ongoing changes to bail agreements and arrests. The York County Jail is taking many of the same precautions as other facilities, such as suspending visits and screening new arrests for symptoms.
“The place is safe, and it’s clean,” King said. “I just don’t see this as a threat to the offender.”
In addition to spread among inmates, local sheriffs are worried about how sick leave among corrections officers could impact their jails. Many agencies already have vacancies in those positions, and the virus could drop their staffing even further.
“If a corrections officer would be ill, we could be in trouble,” Morton said.
The state’s prison population has also started to go down, but the change has not been as dramatic.
On Feb. 24, the number of adults in Maine’s prisons was 2,171. On Friday, that number was down to 2,097. That represents a roughly 3 percent decrease.
Liberty released the first information Friday about the department’s efforts to reduce the incarcerated population. He said staff began reviewing cases last week to identify adults who could be moved to Supervised Community Confinement. That program allows people to finish their sentences in the community, instead of in a correctional facility.
Liberty said the department had released 29 people through that program as of Friday. He anticipated that another 27 adults could be released by April 10.
He also said the staff has reviewed the population at Long Creek Youth Development Center, which is the state’s only juvenile detention facility. Seventeen youths have been released, and he said another four are anticipated to be released by April 1.
The population at Long Creek was expected to be 37 by the end of Friday.
A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday directed questions about testing and guidance for jails and prisons to the Maine Department of Corrections. The department did not answer those questions Friday.
State officials have not responded to calls for more dramatic action in the prisons.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine asked Gov. Janet Mills earlier this month to grant commutation to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year or who is being held on a technical violation of probation. The organization also asked for commutations for people who are within two years of release and who would be considered particularly vulnerable to coronavirus by public health officials.
“Also, under her broad emergency authority, we ask that Governor Mills mandate that sheriffs who are processing these releases are coordinating with local service providers and public health experts so that people who may not be able to return home have a safe, accessible place to be and access to medical facilities and services,” Executive Director Alison Beyea wrote in the letter.
The Maine Youth Justice campaign also asked the governor to release all youths from Long Creek in light of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 spreads quickly in enclosed spaces such as cruise ships and nursing homes and it will spread just as quickly in detention centers, prisons, and jails,” their letter said. “Contagious viruses such as COVID-19 spread much faster in detention centers and prisons as incarcerated youth are in close quarters and sometimes in unsanitary conditions.”
The governor’s office has not taken a public position on those requests.
“With the support of the Governor, the Department of Corrections has taken steps to protect the health of the incarcerated and DOC staff,” spokesman Scott Ogden wrote in an email Friday. “She will continue to confer with the Department moving forward.”
©2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)