AUBURN — The local jail has been holding more than a dozen male inmates who have been blocked from serving their sentences at state prisons because of an order signed by the governor in mid-May.

Last week, the Maine Department of Corrections announced that it would again start to accept prisoners from county jails at the end of this month, but only at a rate of 12 male inmates per week.

That leaves many of the jails with the added liability of holding inmates who normally would be turned over to state custody and who may require medical attention, programs and other needs that county facilities may not be able to provide.

There are roughly 100 inmates at county jails across the state who have been sentenced to prison, but have not been accepted at a Maine DOC facility, Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said.

When the novel coronavirus pandemic struck the state in mid-March, Maine sheriffs agreed to ease pressure on Maine’s prisons by holding back sentenced prisoners from being taken to state facilities due to fears of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars at those facilities, Samson said.

Locally, sheriffs had been working with law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to minimize the number of detainees brought to jails for booking. They were able to lower their jail populations through those measures as state courts restricted the types of criminal cases they would hear and suspended all trials.

But shortly after the Maine Sheriffs Association, of which Samson is a member, notified the DOC last month that it intended to slowly resume sending to state facilities inmates who had been given prison sentences, while adhering to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s safety recommendations, the governor issued an order giving the DOC’s commissioner the authority to halt the intake of those prisoners.

Two days after the governor issued that order, an inmate at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham tested positive for COVID-19. Since that time, three more inmates there have tested positive for the virus.

Samson said he spoke to the Androscoggin County Commission about the situation, explaining that the Androscoggin County Jail’s air circulation system is not suited to isolating inmates who are housed in different areas of the building the way state prisons are.

“It would actually be more problematic for us if we had a positive case,” Samson told the Sun Journal. “Fortunately, we haven’t had that yet,” he said.

Although his jail is able to quarantine inmates who are booked into his facility for an initial period of time where they are checked for symptoms, “we have a limited number of areas to do that,” Samson said.

Moreover, he said his jail doesn’t have 24-hour medical coverage, “something that’s costly that we’d like to do someday,” but can’t, given fiscal restraints under which his jail is operating.

Samson said his jail has 20 inmates who have been sentenced, 13 of whom were given prison terms and should have been taken to a state facility. Their sentences range from one year to six years, he said. Because the remaining seven sentenced inmates at the jail are serving sentences of less than a year, they were not scheduled to serve their sentences in prison, but at the jail instead.

The DOC also said it would accept as many as six female prisoners from jails per week starting June 29, but Samson said none of the 13 sentenced inmates at his jail who are scheduled to go to a state facility are female.

When the DOC begins to accept inmates at its prisons next week, only those inmates who have met stringent protocols will be allowed to be taken to a state facility, Samson said.

All prisoners must have spent 14 days in county custody and be free of symptoms and subjected to temperature checks, among other requirements.

The DOC will stop taking prisoners if the state facility has identified anyone at its state facility as COVID-19 positive or if the jail from which the prisoner is to be transported has identified anyone as being infected with the virus, according to a statement released by DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty.

“We will be carefully monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19 as we ease certain restrictions,” Liberty said. “The goal is to find a balance between public health and resuming standard correctional operations.”

Meanwhile, Samson said efforts adopted in March by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors aimed at reducing the jail population over concerns of overcrowding during a pandemic are likely to start to ease and begin to mark a return to pre-pandemic procedures.

As they do, he said he expects the jail population to start to grow again from its current 101 inmates.

“It’s creating issues with us social distancing,” he said. The jail has a limited number of maximum security beds that should be earmarked for pretrial inmates, but have to be shared with inmates sentenced to time in prison, he said.

“We don’t want to go right back to where we were in March where the population goes back up to 160,” the jail’s limit, he said. “You know, there is still the pandemic going on.”


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