The head of the Maine Department of Corrections briefed legislators Wednesday on the pandemic response in state prisons but did not give public notice that the meeting was taking place or allow a reporter to listen to the call.

A department spokeswoman did not respond to multiple requests via email and phone Tuesday and Wednesday for a reporter to observe or listen to the virtual briefing. It was not clear Wednesday who was allowed to participate or listen.

Commissioner Randy Liberty said later in an interview that he held two separate briefings – one for Democrats, one for Republicans. Asked why those briefings were divided by party, he deferred to the governor’s office. A spokeswoman for the governor’s office said Wednesday evening that she could not respond to questions until Thursday.

Party caucuses are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Access Act, but it wasn’t clear whether Wednesday’s briefings would qualify as party caucuses.

“We will do better next time, I promise,” Liberty said. “We’ll figure this thing out, that’s all I can say.”

More than 2,000 people were incarcerated in state corrections facilities as of Wednesday.

Liberty answered other questions from the Portland Press Herald and shared general updates about the department’s response to the pandemic. Seventeen inmates had been tested for coronavirus as of Wednesday, and none had been positive. One employee at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren tested positive last month, but Liberty was not sure how many total employees had been tested.

In that interview, the commissioner shared new information about life inside the prisons during the pandemic.

Staff members are being screened for symptoms and checked for fever when they arrive at work. Inmates who previously did upholstery and other jobs are now making cloth face masks and other personal protective equipment. Each inmate and staff member received two cloth masks for free and is required to wear them in the facilities. Visits have been canceled for weeks, but most inmates still share a room with another person.

Two legislators who listened to the briefing for Democratic lawmakers said they weren’t sure why the calls were divided by party, and they still had questions about the department’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Democrat from Hallowell who is one of the chairs of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, suggested that splitting the briefings meant they did not have to be public, but she later said she couldn’t be sure why they had been arranged that way.

“There’s a certain amount of discussion that happens when your committee is together, and the fact that all my committee members couldn’t be together to ask questions, it just doesn’t – I don’t understand it,” Warren said.

Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said he has been in contact with families of people who are near release and are worried about a possible outbreak in the prisons.

“I think the transparency was pretty good until recently, and then it hasn’t been as good,” Evangelos said.

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