Just like nursing homes and other congregate settings where physical distancing is an inherent challenge, prisons are extremely vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19. How Maine responds to that vulnerability is a key policy question of great public interest – it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Yet when the Mills administration briefed state legislators Wednesday, the public was left out. And it wasn’t the first time.

During a crisis in which Gov. Mills is taking unprecedented, though so far prudent, steps to stop the spread of COVID-19, it is important her administration operates out in the open. Such transparency gives weight to her emergency orders, and allows the public to gauge whether government is acting in its best interests.

In this case, the administration failed. On Wednesday, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty held two briefings – one for Democratic legislators and one for Republican lawmakers, perhaps to bypass open meeting laws – and did not provide public notice or allow a reporter to listen in to the virtual meetings, the Press Herald’s Megan Gray reported. The meetings were not recorded.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman in the governor’s office told the Press Herald that the Department of Labor and the Maine Center for Disease Control also have held private briefings with lawmakers as they struggled to answer questions while the Legislature is adjourned – nine meetings in total. She said the briefings would be suspended until the administration can find a transparent way to interact with legislators.

After the briefings, Liberty did take questions from Gray, and he shared a general update on what the Department of Corrections is doing in response to the outbreak. Mills’ office also released the presentation Liberty gave to lawmakers Wednesday.

But that’s no substitute. If the Legislature were in session, Liberty’s briefings likely would have taken place in a committee room. Those meetings are open to the public by law, and for good reason – if legislators are going to question the executive branch, the public and the press have an interest in what is being said.

In this particular case, the public needs to know that the Department of Corrections, and the legislators who provide oversight of the department, understand the threat the outbreak poses to prisons, and are taking steps to alleviate it.

Jails and prisons throughout the country are experiencing outbreaks. A COVID-19 cluster at Cook County Jail in Illinois had sickened 181 detainees and more than 200 corrections officers as of Wednesday. The number of cases in the federal Bureau of Prisons went from one infection to 284 and eight deaths within two weeks. In Texas, thousands of detainees may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

In recognition of this threat, there have been calls to greatly reduce the number of people detained in jails and prisons. On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections told WMTW that Maine’s prison population has fallen 7 percent in response to COVID-19, compared to a 37 percent decline in the jail population.

Mainers deserve to hear how Liberty addresses that issue and others with lawmakers, just as they deserve to hear how state agencies are handling the rapidly increasing number of unemployed workers, or the rising number of cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes in the state.

The public’s right to know what their government is doing is essential to making sure the government does it right. COVID-19 doesn’t change that.

 

 


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