More than 100 infected in outbreak at Maine prison

Ninety-five inmates and nine employees are now confirmed to be infected, making it the state's largest outbreak at a single site during the pandemic


By Megan Gray
Portland Press Herald

WINDHAM, Maine — The coronavirus has now spread to 104 people at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, making it the state's largest outbreak at a single site during the pandemic.

Randy Liberty, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said Wednesday afternoon that 95 inmates and nine employees are now confirmed to be infected. That number was higher than the one provided by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention earlier in the day, and Liberty said it has increased as the state lab returned test results. The next round of universal testing will begin Friday.

The Windham prison had 404 inmates as of Tuesday, so nearly one quarter of the people incarcerated there have tested positive for the virus. The facility has 260 employees, including 15 people who work at the Southern Maine Correctional Center on the same campus. Department officials have said the outbreak has not extended to that neighboring facility.

The commissioner said the outbreak remains contained in two men's housing units, but he could not speculate at how the virus entered the facility or how it spread so quickly.

"I wasn't surprised because that's what we've seen nationally," Liberty said. "Once (the virus) has gotten into the facility, it's a challenge to contain. It's always a challenge to contain a virus in a congregate setting."

The department has said most people who have tested positive are asymptomatic. Only a few — no exact number was provided — have reported mild symptoms. Liberty said he could not elaborate for confidentiality reasons.

The outbreak is now the largest outbreak at a correctional facility in Maine, exceeding a recent outbreak of 87 cases at the York County Jail.

Until this summer, Maine jails and prisons had not reported the same large and deadly outbreaks as correctional facilities in other states. But an outbreak at the York County Jail spread to 87 people, including nearly half of the inmates and employees. Interviews and a review of an internal document revealed that the jail flouted public health recommendations regarding the use of face masks before the outbreak spread to the jail population, staff and eventually into the community. One inmate who tested positive during that outbreak later died from a stroke, and the state medical examiner's office said COVID-19 contributed to the man's death.

Liberty said Wednesday that he is confident the Maine Correctional Center has been following those public health recommendations. In particular, he said employees and inmates are required to wear masks when they cannot socially distance inside the facility. Employees must also pass a screening that includes a temperature check when they arrive at work, he said, and inmates arriving from county jails must quarantine for 14 days and test negative for COVID-19.

The department is currently auditing the jails to make sure they are following those protocols; not all were before the outbreak in York County. Liberty said the same review is not taking place at the prisons, but he knows those facilities are following the protocols because he speaks with their leadership on a daily basis.

"All of the things we're supposed to be doing, we're doing," Liberty said. "I think that looking globally, looking nationally, the Maine Department of Corrections and the Maine jails, we are doing very, very well, relatively speaking."

Liberty said there are no plans to release more inmates to home confinement because of the outbreak. State officials have said they are using home confinement as a tool to reduce the inmate population during the pandemic, but they have resisted calls from attorneys and advocates to expand eligibility for that program. More than 1,750 people are incarcerated in Maine prisons as of Wednesday, and 40 are currently finishing their sentences in home confinement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sued the department earlier this year on behalf of two inmates who said the state was not doing enough to release people who are at higher risk because of underlying medical conditions. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in August.

The court documents in that case included a May email from a corrections official, who wrote that 925 inmates across all facilities have underlying medical conditions. Liberty said Wednesday that he did not know how many people at the Maine Correctional Center had preexisting conditions.

"I'm always concerned for the health and care of anyone, any residents in my care," Liberty said when asked about those inmates.

In addition to the outbreak in Windham, three inmates at the Maine State Prison in Warren have tested positive for COVID-19. All three live in the same prison unit. Three staff members at the Maine State Prison have also tested positive for the virus.

Because of the outbreaks, the corrections department has suspended all in-person visits to correctional facilities through the rest of November. The state has also suspended all transfers between prisons and intakes from jails for the time being.

Universal testing will continue at both prisons; the department uses both rapid antigen testing and PCR lab testing.

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(c)2020 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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