Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal photo

AUBURN — Androscoggin County Jail has suspended all in-house group programming among other recent measures aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus, Sheriff Eric Samson said Thursday.

He said the jail is seeking ways to limit exposure to inmates from outside facilitators and volunteers who hold regular gatherings in the jail, such as church services and support group meeting. Jail administrators also are looking at ways of avoiding large gatherings of inmates in an effort to keep any transmittable diseases from spreading.

Those services that had been offered in group programs will continue to be available to inmates, but only on a one-on-one basis, Samson said.

Facilitators and volunteers, who have expressed concerns about the virus at the jail, would be quizzed about their possible risk of exposure before being allowed into the building, Samson said.

Administrators are considering changing the jail’s protocol for attorneys meeting with their clients from rooms that allow contact and free exchange of documents to “no-contact rooms,” he said.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re reluctant to do it,” adding defense attorneys would be consulted first. “That would be a next step,” he said.

The jail is taking the initial steps to protect inmates from the coronavirus, he said.

If spread of the coronavirus were to worsen in the Twin Cities community and around the state, “we might look to see what other things we have to do to limit the exposure opportunities within the facility,” he said.

Some new protocols have been put in place, including asking additional questions of inmates during the booking process that might indicate the individual coming into the jail had a greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Jail staff are following guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control regarding self-quarantine, he said. Some workers Thursday were canceling trips outside the country and anyone who has returned from a trip abroad is required to stay away from work for a designated period of time.

The jail contracts with a private company that provides medical services for the inmates.

Samson said administrators met Thursday morning with that provider to talk about steps they’re taking and concerns they have.

As of Thursday, none of the roughly 150 inmates has tested positive for the coronavirus, he said.

“We have nobody currently in the facility who is showing any signs or symptoms that we feel there is a need to test,” he said.

If that were to change, “it may get to the point where we’ll have to designate a cellblock for a quarantined” inmate or inmates, Samson said.

Moving inmates to other facilities, such as a courthouse, could expose them to the virus.

Last week, the jail explored the possibility of having inmates appear in the courtroom for court hearings without leaving the jail by using web-based technology.

“Once the equipment comes in and is installed we’ll have the ability to do it,'” he said.

That decision was driven more by transport staffing issues than by a risk posed by the coronavirus, Samson said.

“Now we have this corona thing coming on so, ironically, this purchase we made and (got the specifications) a week or two ago will help us to meet this need if (the coronavirus) gets there,” he said.

The jail has also ordered safety masks and plans to train staff in how to wear them properly.

“If anyone in facility is showing symptoms, they are to wear one,” he said.

In Oxford County, Sheriff Christopher Wainwright said Thursday that no major changes have been implemented at the county’s 72-hour holding facility, but he is bracing for that possibility.

Unlike schools and sports venues that have the option to shift to cyberspace, he said, “we can’t shut down operations” at the Oxford County Jail in South Paris.

The usual precautions continue to be observed, he said, as hygiene protocols are stepped up, including sanitizing keyboards and phones continually. While the corrections officers continue to wear gloves, hand sanitizer features prominently in the jail’s sally port, where inmates are brought in and booked for processing. All inmates are made to wash their hands frequently.

Wainwright said plans are in place if an inmate were to test positive for coronavirus, which hasn’t happened yet.

Best practices already in place continue to be followed, Wainwright said. But his staff is on heightened alert for the virus.

“We’re watching,” he said. “Obviously, everyone is hypervigilant.”

In a letter to Gov. Janet Mills, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine noted that: “People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health.”

The letter goes on to say that medical services in Maine’s jails and prisons have been outsourced to private for-profit companies “which are not necessarily as responsive to public needs as government officials are.”

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