A federal judge has denied the first motion in a lawsuit by inmates over the Maine Department of Corrections’ pandemic response, but the case will still move forward.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock wrote in his order that he could not take immediate action because the parties have too many disputes about the facts of the case. He said the court would schedule a phone conference to discuss another pending motion and the next steps.

“The order these individuals seek would fundamentally alter central details of the Department’s COVID-19 response,” Woodcock wrote. “Because the Court believes that significant unresolved factual disputes preclude a finding that the incarcerated individuals have established a likelihood of success on the merits for their claims or that they have established a likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief, the Court denies temporary injunctive relief.”

He also suggested the need for action was not immediate because Maine prisons have so far been spared the widespread outbreaks that other states have experienced. One employee at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren tested positive for the disease in March, and four inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham tested positive in May. The adult prison population as of Monday was 1,850.

“Given the relatively low number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in MDOC facilities and what the Court expects will be a rapid resolution of the request for a preliminary injunction, the Court does not see the need for temporary injunctive relief at this time,” Woodcock wrote.

The plaintiffs are Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale, who are both incarcerated at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is representing them and seeking class-action status for hundred of other inmates, especially those who are medically vulnerable to the coronavirus. The lawsuit includes a May email from a correction official, who wrote that 925 inmates have underlying medical conditions.

The plaintiffs have argued that the state is not doing enough to release incarcerated people who are at risk during the pandemic, and the prisons are unable to allow for physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. They have asked the judge to take certain immediate steps, like ordering the department to review all medically vulnerable inmates for furlough or instituting universal testing in certain prisons.

The state has argued that the Maine Department of Corrections is reviewing inmates for its home confinement program and taking other steps to prevent the spread of disease inside prisons. They have also said the inmates have other opportunities to pursue release outside of federal court.

The judge held a hearing last week on a motion for a temporary restraining order, which is an immediate and short-term form of relief in federal court. He denied that motion Monday but did not make significant findings on the facts of the case. The plaintiffs also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which will require another hearing. Woodcock wrote that he would proceed quickly to deal with that motion.

“Both sides, in other words, have painted quite different pictures of what is happening behind the walls of MDOC facilities,” he wrote at one point. “At this juncture, the Court has no reason to credit one picture over the other.”

Woodcock has also suggested that the parties consider mediation.

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