Administrators at the Cumberland County Jail have loosened the rules of a lockdown prompted by a COVID-19 outbreak last month.

Many inmates who had been allowed out of their cells just 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night can now move around and socialize in their pods for at least 3 ½ hours each day, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce told county commissioners on Tuesday. But they are still required to eat their meals in their cells to help reduce the spread of infections.

Some had complained about the effects of isolation on a population that includes a lot of people with mental health issues, and said they were seeing more suicide attempts. Since Sept. 29, four people have attempted suicide at the jail, according to statistics provided by Joyce.

Two pods housing people who were or still are infected with the virus remain on restricted schedules, and the jail is still closed to people recently arrested by police departments in Cumberland County.

Concerns linger that more infections could be coming because a vaccinated nurse and a kitchen worker recently tested positive for the virus.

The kitchen worker was one of two incarcerated people with new positive tests this week. Their infections are problematic because they live among about 60 other people in a jail pod and had no contact with the inmates who were moved to segregated housing because they had the virus.

“Although (the kitchen worker was) masked, that could bring us some issues,” Joyce told the commissioners. “Keep in mind, most of (how COVID spreads) is aerosol-related.”

Joyce said he had planned a “soft opening” to begin taking in detainees arrested locally this week, but delayed reopening to new prisoners out of concern that a new flurry of infections might force him to close down again.

As a new precaution, any jailed people working in the kitchen must now be vaccinated and submit to daily testing to keep their assignments. Jobs inside the facility are coveted because they net small wages and can help shave days or weeks off a sentence, a practice known as good time.

MASKING ENFORCEMENT UNEVEN

Joyce, who recently has worked shifts in the jail because of a shortage of employees, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he saw firsthand that enforcement of the mask mandate for staff and prisoners is “kind of all over the place.”

Commissioner James Cloutier asked Joyce if jail administrators could separate vaccinated from unvaccinated prisoners and offer the vaccinated group more freedom.

“It seems like the one-hour limitation of being outside the cell served a completely legitimate function in reducing infection,” Cloutier said. “But for people who are vaccinated, they’re kind of being roped into a preventive program that seems not to be anywhere near as important (for them as) for those who are manifestly not vaccinated.”

Although the jail has mostly returned to a normal schedule, short staffing and the threat of more COVID infections have all but eliminated programming designed to help with rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

Cooking and parenting classes, religious services, Bible study groups and counseling for alcoholics and people with substance use disorder have stopped entirely, according to incarcerated people and their families.

There also is the problem of the jail’s medical staff, which has twice, including the case this week, been the source of new infections.

Although Gov. Janet Mills imposed a mandate that health care workers get vaccinated, it does not cover nurses and doctors who work in jails. The state had ruled that jails don’t meet the definition of health care or congregate care facilities, a loophole that puts at risk a population that cannot seek health care elsewhere.

The most recent outbreak at the jail, which began in mid-September, started with an unvaccinated employee of Armor Correctional Health Services, which provides the jail’s medical care. Eventually, three other unvaccinated medical employees and about two dozen staff and inmates were infected.

VACCINATION RATES LOW

And only about 40 percent of the jail’s daily population of about 300 is vaccinated, despite constant availability of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. There is no mechanism to force new detainees to get the shot, Joyce has said.

The vaccination rate among corrections officers is not much better, at about 50 percent – and some officers believe conspiracy theories about the vaccine and virus, a jail captain said in a recent public meeting. Although President Biden’s nationwide vaccine mandate for larger employers would theoretically apply to corrections staff at the jail, it isn’t in place yet.

Eight incarcerated people are being quarantined and three corrections officers are staying home because they’ve tested positive for the virus, Joyce said Tuesday night. Two other jail employees are out as a precaution after they were exposed to the virus outside of work, he said. Half of the quarantined prisoners are expected to return to the general population on Thursday. The other half will return Monday, with more testing coming for the staff and people who are jailed.

Although conditions inside are improving, damage already has been done, inmates say.

The recent suicide attempts bring the total to 12 this year, with two and a half months still to go. There were 12 suicide attempts per year in 2019 and 2020.

The loosening of restrictions at the jail coincided with two stories published by the Portland Press Herald last week detailing the extraordinary staffing shortage, low morale among corrections officers and the bleak, frustrated outlook of those confined almost all the time to their cells.

Incarcerated people were permitted one hour out of their cells starting Oct. 7, up from only 40 minutes each day. That morning, the Press Herald published accounts about the dire staffing situation made worse by the outbreak. A reduced workforce of about 65 corrections officers, the story said, has clocked more than 2,100 forced overtime shifts this year. Staffing has been a recurring problem for years, the correction officers’ union has said.

After the Press Herald published a story on Saturday highlighting the effect of the lockdown on residents’ mental health, the sheriff returned to a normal schedule for all but the two jail units housing COVID-positive people.

Joyce said Tuesday that the decision to ease the lockdowns was made in consultation with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Armor’s medical team, but he also acknowledged the pressure from the media coverage.

QUESTIONS ABOUT WATCHDOG

Meanwhile, although there are mechanisms built into state law to give jailed people a guaranteed watchdog, it’s unclear whether the group is working as designed in Cumberland County.

By law, every sheriff who runs a jail must appoint a five-member board of visitors. Along with the county commissioners, the board’s job is to ensure jailed people are treated humanely, receive proper medical and mental health treatment, and are kept in safe conditions.

It’s unknown whether the Cumberland County board of visitors has met recently or if it was involved in the decisions to lock down the jail in September or ease restrictions last week.

Although the state law creating the oversight group was passed in 2003, there is no mention of the group on the sheriff’s website, no list of its members, no agendas accessible to the public and no meeting notices as required by law.

After a reporter’s inquiries, Joyce said he learned from a county attorney this week that the board of visitors is a public body subject to open meeting laws.

Because of a reporting error, this story inaccurately described the vaccination status of a medical worker at the Cumberland County Jail. The nurse was vaccinated and the infection was a breakthrough case.

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