The Cumberland County Jail is back to normal operations after a three-week state of emergency prompted by a chronic staffing shortage and an outbreak of COVID-19 that began last month.

The jail’s intake department fully reopened on Thursday, said Capt. John Costello, and the county commissioners are moving to lift the state of emergency declared Sept. 29.

Nearly all inmates are no longer locked down in their cells for all but an hour or less per day, and the commissioners are expected to meet virtually on Friday morning to rescind the emergency declaration, about one week before it would have expired at the end of October.

A staffing crisis that has worsened over the years grew dire when a dozen correction officers tested positive for the coronavirus starting in mid-September. About a dozen inmates also were infected. A facility-wide lockdown increased tensions inside the facility, where prisoners were subject to conditions akin to solitary confinement.

Suicide attempts increased, and family members of inmates said they feared their loved ones would deteriorate further if circumstances inside did not improve.

Aggravating the situation was the dwindling workforce. Had the jail been close to its authorized 129 officers, absorbing a loss of about a dozen people out sick with COVID-19 would have been difficult but doable, union leaders said. But when the virus took hold, the jail was down to about 65 available workers.

Officers were frequently being forced into overtime shifts, often with little notice, and during the emergency even the sheriff and his top commanders started picking up shifts.

For about three weeks, police departments in Cumberland County had to choose either to issue summonses instead of making in-custody arrests or to transport new arrestees to York County Jail in Alfred or Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, each nearly an hour away from Portland.

Earlier this week, Joyce said that two inmates and one staff member who had previously tested positive were expected to be cleared for normal activity on Wednesday.

Another round of testing for inmates and staff was to be done this week, he said, but Joyce’s office did not respond to a request Thursday for updated infection numbers.

Joyce was not available for an interview Thursday afternoon. A sheriff’s office employee said Joyce and Chief Deputy Naldo Gagnon were scheduled to work a night shift at the jail.

Dennis Welch, who was president of National Correctional Employees Union Local 110 until last week, gave credit to Joyce, Gagnon and other members of the command staff for following through on their promise to fill line shifts in the jail. It has helped repair some of the distrust between rank-and-file employees and their bosses, he said.

“Whatever they said they were going to do, they did it,” said Welch, who said he resigned his union leadership position last Wednesday for personal reasons. “When I see the command staff step up to help the line staff, that means a lot to me. ”

Still, Welch said there is much work to be done to rebuild the ranks. Although the sheriff said there are more than a  dozen applicants in the hiring pipeline and a small number of officers starting at the jail who are already corrections certified, there are still dozens of vacancies, which means more forced overtime.

By early October, the staff had worked more than 2,100 forced overtime shifts this year. Under the rules of forced overtime, employees  can be required to work anywhere from one extra hour to an extra eight-hour shift – frequently without knowing about it until they come to work.

Welch said previously that the practice wreaks havoc on the personal lives of corrections officers, who have to scramble to arrange for child care or cancel family plans to stay and work.

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