Officials in Kennebec and Somerset counties are taking measures to keep the highly contagious and dangerous coronavirus out of their jails and have reduced the number of inmates housed there.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason said he has been working in conjunction with Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney to identify inmates with 30 days or fewer left to serve on their sentences to be released early.

As a result, the jail population is currently about 100, which also reduces the amount of prepared food and hygiene products used daily.

Mason said Thursday the result has been to limit occupancy of jail cells to a single inmate in most cases.

“We have released nobody dangerous,” Mason said. “There are those that may not be pleased with that, but I am here to make those tough decisions for what is the good of all.”

Inmates that have been released are required to check in daily, he said. If they fail to do so, they will be jailed again. So far, all have complied.

The Kennebec County inmates were released a week ago, and law enforcement officials are working to keep the jail population low.

Since those initial furloughs, he said, bail for some inmates has been reviewed and the Sheriff’s Office has been working with Maine Pretrial Services to prepare others to be released under that agency’s supervision.

One inmate, who had about two months left on his sentence, was also furloughed. He had qualified for a work-release program, and was leaving the jail daily to go to work. Because of his daily contact with the public, Mason said the decision was made to furlough him to lessen the chance of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus infection, being introduced in the jail.

“We also graduated a CARA class last Friday, which reduced our numbers by 11,” Mason said. “Those individuals were scheduled to be released anyway. It just happened to fall on the same day as the furloughs.”

CARA, the Criminogenic Addiction Recovery Academy, is a jail inmate intervention program that looks to reprograms the kind of thinking that leads to criminal activity.

Reducing inmate numbers has also lessened the likelihood of infection of corrections officers.

All incoming inmates and corrections officers are screened by having their temperatures taken. Mason said anyone exhibiting signs of illness is taken for medical treatment, which is the practice that’s always in place at the jail.

“I appreciate the collaboration we’ve had, so no one is released without full information,” Maloney said Thursday.

She said both Mason’s office and her office have been reaching out to victims of those released to let them know.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster Michael G. Seamans

In Somerset County, Sheriff Dale Lancaster said that he has been meeting regularly with jail administration to evaluate the inmate population to look at those who can be discharged early. He says that as of now, four or five individuals have been let out early.

On March 13, Lancaster said, an email was sent to all law enforcement agencies that use Somerset County for the people they arrest, asking the departments to use arrest as a last resort.

“We prefer they use summonses for their enforcement action right now,” Lancaster said. “The people coming inside of the jail has drastically diminished.”

Officers have also been provided with protective equipment and practice social distancing when possible during their interactions.

The facility, which can regularly hold between 150 to 160 inmates, is down to 135 right now.

“Understand those aren’t all individuals that we have released early,” Lancaster said. “Some of those have served their sentences.”

The Somerset County Sheriff also said that nobody at the facility has been tested for COVID-19, but measures have been put in place to prevent the spread of illness.

“We haven’t had anyone tested so far,” Lancaster said.

Before inmates are taken into the jail, he said that they are first brought to a facility outside of the building, where they are evaluated by medical staff. Staff at the jail are also having their temperatures checked before entering and visitations have also been suspended.

In addition to reducing the number of inmates housed in the county jails, law enforcement and judicial officials have made other changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including delaying trials until after May 1 and limiting public hours at courthouses.

On Thursday, Maloney announced her office is suspending collection of supervision fees for deferred dispositions starting Friday until further notice. Supervision fees are charged to offset the cost of tracking whether people are fulfilling court-ordered requirements like undergoing drug addiction or mental health treatment, for example.

Under state law, a county sheriff has the authority at his or her discretion to release inmates who have served at least a third of their sentences.

Other counties, including Cumberland, Penobscot and Knox, have released inmates and the state Department of Corrections has indicated it would also release inmates early.

Mason said he reached out to the police departments in the county, including the Capital Police and at the VA Maine Healthcare-Togus, to ask agencies to issue summonses rather than arrest people.

“They’ve already been doing that,” Mason said, in response to overcrowding at the jail.

In 2015, then-Sheriff Randall Liberty asked police departments in Kennebec County to limit arrests for minor nonviolent offenses because of chronic overcrowding at the county jail.

At that time, the jail’s capacity was 147 and had a peak limit of 161, but it was housing more than 200 routinely in the historic jail.

In 2016, county officials opted to convert the gymnasium into a new pod to increase the capacity. The work was completed the following year, raising the capacity at the jail to 169.

To ease crowding, some Kennebec County inmates had been boarded at other jails in the state. But other than one inmate housed by the state, no Kennebec inmates are currently boarding at other jails.

 

Morning Sentinel writer Taylor Abbott contributed to this report.

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