Three Maine prison inmates have been hospitalized with COVID-19 complications during the pandemic, the state Department of Corrections revealed Tuesday.

The outbreak at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, first reported on Oct. 29, is the largest single-site outbreak in the state. Gordon Chibroski /Portland Press Herald file photo

A spokeswoman said all three people have since been discharged from the hospital but refused to say whether they were infected during an ongoing outbreak at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. More than 150 people, mostly inmates, have tested positive there since late October, but little information has been released about the inmates who became ill.

The outbreak at the Windham prison is the largest at a single site in Maine. Nearly one month after the first positive test, top officials said this week that they could not speculate about how the virus got into the prison and spread to nearly 40 percent of the people incarcerated there.

“I can’t speak to how the virus got into the facility,” Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell said Monday. “I’m not aware of any definitive conclusions on that front. It’s a congregate living facility, so there are certain areas, shared restrooms and other shared services that allow the virus to spread more easily.”

Public health officials have said masks are the best line of defense against the spread of coronavirus. In April, the department began to require them for inmates and staff wherever social distancing was not possible. But an affidavit filed in federal court in May shows that masks were not worn in all areas of the prisons. In that document, Thornell used the example of inmates on a single floor at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston.

“These inmates are not required to wear masks in their four-person dorm room or while they are on their own floor of the building but are instructed to distance as much as possible,” Thornell said in that affidavit. “The dormitory inmates also eat and move separately from inmates assigned to other floors.”

A floor could house as many as 30 or 40 inmates, depending on the facility. Thornell said Monday that he did not believe that policy contributed to the spread of the virus through two housing units, and neither he nor a spokeswoman provided a clear answer as to whether it was still in place before the outbreak. Masks are now required everywhere in the facility except individual rooms.

“At times of an outbreak, certain units of certain facilities have had to enhance requirements,” spokeswoman Anna Black wrote in an email.

In total, 143 inmates have tested positive since the start of the outbreak, and department officials have said they are confident the virus is contained to the two housing units. As of Friday, 111 had recovered, meaning they had completed their required quarantine period. Thornell said roughly 15 percent of the inmates who contracted COVID-19 experienced symptoms, and he described them as mild in “nearly all cases.” He did not answer more specific questions about symptomatic inmates.

More than 1,700 people were incarcerated in Maine prisons as of Monday. Maine Correctional Center held 327 men and 56 women.

Attorneys and advocates have been pushing the state to release more inmates to reduce the risk of an outbreak in jails and prisons. While the Department of Corrections has moved some people to home confinement during the pandemic, state officials have not expanded that program to additional groups or issued commutations, steps that have been taken in other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year to challenge that position, but a judge dismissed the case in August. Department officials have said they are not considering changes to their home confinement policy or other options for release in light of this outbreak at Maine Correctional Center.

Dale Sukeforth was one of the inmates who gave declarations in support of the ACLU of Maine lawsuit. Sukeforth, 51, is serving a 19-month sentence for felony theft convictions. He wrote that he has multiple health conditions, including diabetes and advanced cirrhosis of the liver.

“I am scared that I could get sick or die in prison before my release date,” Sukeforth wrote in May.

Defense lawyer Sam Johnson represented Sukeforth, and he said he struggled to arrange a phone call through the department in recent weeks. When the two finally talked last week, Sukeforth confirmed he tested positive for COVID-19. Johnson described the other man as sounding tired during their brief conversation.

“I think it’s very defeating for him,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Sukeforth is just four months from his release date, but the department deemed him too high risk for home confinement. He worried about the lasting complications of COVID-19 for his client and others who contracted the virus during this outbreak.

“You can’t undo that,” Johnson said.

Richard Jewett was finishing a two-year sentence at Maine Correctional Center for domestic violence assault when the outbreak hit. He said he tested negative for the virus a few days before his release, but he still worried that he picked it up when he was moved to a cell where sick inmates had recently lived or when two of his roommates contracted it. So he quarantined for two weeks at a shelter in Lewiston after his release in early November.

“They failed to do what they should have done to protect the population from the virus,” Jewett, 31, said.

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