Before a COVID-19 outbreak at the York County Jail this summer, at least four other jails in Maine were not requiring inmates and employees to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a review by the Maine Department of Corrections.

That outbreak infected nearly half of the inmates and correctional officers at the Alfred jail. The York County sheriff told the Portland Press Herald that face coverings were not required there most of the time, flouting a key recommendation from public health experts.

Following that outbreak, Department of Corrections staff visited the state’s 15 jails to review their pandemic protocols. The findings were mixed. Most jails do require masks and conduct the screenings for possible COVID-19 exposure. But they also had gaps in their screening for employees and their emergency plans in case of an outbreak.

“The MDOC staff saw many positive practices in each facility,” spokeswoman Anna Black wrote in an email. “MDOC staff met with well-intentioned and caring staff and inmates who were knowledgeable about and were implementing best practices to reduce and manage COVID-19. However, as the objective was not to highlight the positive, mostly these positive examples go unmentioned in the report.”

The report provided to the Press Herald does not include the department’s findings from its visit to York County, and Black did not immediately respond to a public records request for any reports related to that jail.

York County is conducting an internal inquiry into whether the jail followed protocol for wearing masks before an outbreak of COVID-19 infected more than 80 people. But the county has refused to disclose any information about who is conducting that inquiry, how much it will cost or any findings so far. County Manager Greg Zinser did not respond to an email Monday afternoon asking for an update.

But the Department of Corrections report did detail its findings at the other 14 jails.

The Kennebec County Jail, in particular, required neither inmates nor officers to wear masks.

“The facility was mandating mask wearing and screening staff, but the sheriff opted to discontinue these efforts in June against the recommendation of the jail administrator,” a department employee wrote in his evaluation. “After my visit, the facility decided to reintroduce these prevention measures.”

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason disputed that statement. He said the decision to relax COVID-19 protocols was not his, but he did support it at the time.

“We backed off it a little bit because everything had gone down, and COVID was borderline nonexistent here in (Kennebec County),” Mason said Monday. “I think we’ve done pretty well, a little better than other counties. When the outbreak in (York County) happened, we ramped things back up.”

The sheriff said he does see the importance of face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19. He said the staff has been taking precautions to prevent the virus from entering the jail or spreading inside it.

“We don’t have COVID here,” he said. “If it does get in, it isn’t because we’re not trying to keep it out.”

Three other jails reported inconsistent policies on masks.

Two Bridges Regional Jail provided masks to inmates and employees, but did not require their use until September, after the virus spread through the York County Jail. The Somerset County jail required masks for employees but not for inmates. The Knox County Jail did not require masks for inmates, and the Corrections Department employee observed that many employees also did not wear them.

“I spoke to two prisoners who were not wearing masks or practicing safe distancing,” a department employee wrote in the review for Knox County Jail. “I asked them if they were required to wear masks and they both said ‘no.’ I asked them if they felt as though they were being safely protected from the virus and they both said ‘no’ to that. When asked if they observed staff wearing masks they also said ‘no.’ ”

The department also reviewed a variety of other COVID-19 protocols, including the screening process for employees, the requirements for visitors and the emergency plans in case of an outbreak.

Every jail except Kennebec County was screening employees for possible exposure, but many did not have every question the state wants asked. For example, the process at the Cumberland County Jail includes a temperature check, but no questions about out-of-state travel. Most jails also required employees to provide a negative COVID-19 test if they had traveled to states that are not exempt from the governor’s quarantine rule, but five did not.

Nine of the 14 jails either quarantined newly arrived inmates for 14 days or tested them for COVID-19 before moving them to the general population. The rest did not.

Almost every jail had gaps in its pandemic plan. For example, many lacked a diversion plan should they not be able to accept new inmates, staffing to accommodate inmate hospital admissions and a plan to procure additional personal protective equipment.

Black said all of the jails have made changes since the visits by the state, but she did not describe them in detail. Corrections Department staff will return to the jails 60 days after the first visit, she said, “for discussion and reflection about responses and changes.”

“MDOC and the Maine Sheriffs’ Association (MSA) engaged in a few short conversations in preparation to these visits, specifically to establish norms for the visits,” Black wrote in an email. “The two agencies agreed that the protocol reviews and subsequent conversations would be done in the spirit of professional courtesy. It was conveyed to all staff involved that no part of the visit constituted a formal inspection or an investigation. The objective of each individual MDOC reviewer was to compile a snapshot for the facility to use in determining their next course of action.”

Black did not respond to an email asking about the department’s enforcement capabilities in the jails. A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention also did not respond to an email about the report.

State Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she is concerned by the department’s findings. Warren said she wants the Maine CDC to take a more active role in the pandemic response in jails and prisons than what she has seen so far. Typically, the agency refers questions about COVID-19 protocols in those facilities to the Maine DOC.

“I think that the Maine CDC should probably get interested in what’s happening at our county jails,” Warren said.

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