An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Cumberland County jail has expanded to 34 inmates and one staff member in the past two weeks, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Friday.
The first new illnesses were discovered on Nov. 7, when a prosecutor and several male prisoners in a residential pod complained of flu-like symptoms. Since then, three residential pods have been locked up, the sheriff’s office said.
A total of 33 men and one woman in prison have active infections, Joyce wrote in an email. The staff member, who was one of the first to report symptoms, has since recovered at home and has returned to work, Joyce said.
After the corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19, rapid tests of the pod where inmates reported symptoms revealed some positive cases, Joyce said in a statement.
A second housing unit has since been opened to isolate some of the sick inmates. The original housing unit where the virus first appeared has been shut down for 23 hours, with inmates allowed to leave their cells for 30 minutes twice a day, Joyce said.
Infected inmates moved to the second pod are allowed to leave their cells for two one-hour periods per day. The lockdown regime was recommended by the prison’s medical provider, Armor Health, and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Joyce said. He did not respond to questions about whether detainees without COVID are being housed next to detainees with the disease.
A third unit housing women has been locked this week after an inmate there tested positive on Wednesday, Joyce said. The facility-wide testing for detainees and staff will continue, he said.
All other prison houses operate normally without lockdowns.
One inmate, David Phillips, who is being held on federal charges of possessing ammunition by a felon, said he was given a legal document to sign stating that he voluntarily consented to be housed with people who tested positive for COVID-19. 19 and were released exempting the county, Armor Health and any prison subcontractors from liability should he become ill with the virus. He said the waiver he had to sign covers past, present and future illnesses.
Phillips said he was verbally informed that if he didn’t sign the waiver, he would lose his time earned and his job in prison, the only way he can make money.
“I am the only one of 61 men who refuses to sign because in April I became ill (with COVID-19) and had MRSA (an antibiotic resistant staph infection) three times and I will not be forced by these thugs,” he said. Philips wrote in a text message.
Joyce did not immediately respond to questions about a liability waiver or whether Phillips or anyone else was threatened with loss of privileges for refusing to sign a waiver.
A round of personnel tests conducted last week came back negative, but Joyce said he is awaiting the results of another round of personnel tests conducted on Tuesday and Thursday this week.
The outbreak is the second flare-up of the highly contagious virus in recent months. In September, the prison was nearly paralyzed by a confluence of staff shortages and infections.
For years, the prison has struggled to maintain a full workforce due to difficult working conditions, long hours and unattractive pay, according to the Corrections Union.
County commissioners declared a prison emergency that lasted about three weeks into October, and Joyce and other top commanders personally filled shifts manning prison pods to reduce the shortage of correction workers.
The prison’s budget allows for 129 positions, but only about 60 correction officers are currently employed. At one point in late September, at the peak of the outbreak, only about 45 full-time corrections officers were available, according to figures provided at a public meeting. There are currently about 60 staff members who run the prison.
The Cumberland County Jail isn’t the only correctional facility in Maine to deal with COVID outbreaks.
Defendants who report to the York County Jail in Alfred have been rejected over COVID-19 concerns and told to return on December 3 to have their sentences reviewed or, in some cases, possible pardon.
The practice has been going on since early September and has affected an undisclosed number of people, most of whom have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes and gone to prison to serve their court-imposed sentences.
Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz issued an injunction on Sept. 8 saying that in light of potential public health concerns about COVID-19 expressed by prison officials, it would be imprudent for defendants to serve sentences for which they have previously been granted a stay of execution. Moskowitz said anyone who shows up to serve a sentence will receive a copy of their warrant and receive a further reprieve.
Anna Black, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections, said last week that the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak. As of Friday, the facility had confirmed 49 cases, according to the Maine Department of Corrections COVID-19 dashboard posted every Friday on its website.
A Limerick man convicted of manslaughter in 2017 died at the Mountain View Correctional Facility on December 10, but the state has not released a cause of death.
More than 330 inmates in various prisons across the state have contracted COVID. The Maine Correctional Center in Windham recorded the highest number, with 161 confirmed cases since last Friday.
Bowdoin College senior, Brunswick resident drowns while kayaking in Washington state
Next one ”