An outbreak of  COVID-19 at Cumberland County Jail expanded to 34 inmates and one staff member over the last two weeks, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Friday.

The first new illnesses were detected Nov. 7, when one corrections officer and multiple male inmates in one housing pod complained of flu-like symptoms. Since then, three housing pods have been placed on lockdown, the sheriff’s office has said.

A total of 33 men and one woman incarcerated at the jail have active infections, Joyce wrote in an email. The staff member, who was among the first to report symptoms, has since recuperated at home and returned to work, Joyce said.

After the corrections officer tested positive for COVID-19, rapid testing of the pod where inmates reported symptoms revealed some positive cases, Joyce said in a statement.

Since then, a second housing unit has been opened to isolate some of the sick prisoners. The original housing unit where the virus first appeared is on a 23-hour lockdown, with inmates permitted out of their cells twice each day for 30 minutes, Joyce said.

Infected inmates moved to the second pod are permitted out of their cells for two one-hour periods each day. The lockdown regimen was recommended by the jail’s medical provider, Armor Health, and the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Joyce said. He did not respond to questions about whether inmates without COVID are being housed alongside inmates with the disease.

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A third unit housing women is on lockdown this week after an inmate there tested positive on Wednesday, Joyce said. Facility-wide testing for inmates and staff will continue, he said.

All other jail housing units are operating as normal without lockdowns.

One inmate, David Phillips, who is being held on a federal charge of possession of ammunition by a felon, said he was  given a legal document to sign declaring that he voluntarily agreed to be housed with people who tested positive for COVID-19 and released the county, Armor Health and any jail subcontractors from liability if he were to become ill with the virus. He said that the waiver he was asked to sign covers past, present and future illnesses.

Phillips said he was verbally informed that if he did not sign the waiver, he would lose earned good time and his job inside the jail, the only way he can earn money.

“I am the only one of 61 men to refuse to sign because I got sick (with COVID-19) in April and have had MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph infection) three times and I will not be coerced by these thugs,” Phillips wrote in a text message.

Joyce did not immediately respond to questions about a liability waiver or about whether Phillips or anyone else was threatened with a loss of privileges for refusing to sign a waiver.

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A round of staff testing conducted last week came back negative, but Joyce said he is awaiting results of another round of staff testing conducted on Tuesday and Thursday of this week.

The outbreak is the second flare-up of the highly contagious virus in recent months. In September, the jail was nearly crippled by a confluence of staff shortages and infections.

For years, the jail has struggled to maintain a full complement of staff because of difficult working conditions, long hours and unattractive pay, the corrections officers union has said.

County commissioners declared an emergency at the jail that lasted for about three weeks in October, and Joyce and other top commanders personally filled shifts staffing jail pods to ease the shortage of corrections workers.

The jail’s budget authorizes 129 positions but only about 60 corrections officers currently work there. At one point at the end of September, at the peak of the outbreak, only about 45 full-time corrections officers were available, according to figures provided during a public meeting. There are currently about 60 staffers running the jail.

The Cumberland County Jail is not the only correctional facility in Maine dealing with COVID outbreaks.

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Defendants reporting to the York County Jail in Alfred are being turned away because of concerns about COVID-19 and told to return on Dec. 3 to have their sentences revised or in some cases possibly waived.

The practice has been going on since early September and has affected an undisclosed number of people, most of whom have been convicted of misdemeanor crimes and have gone to the jail to begin serving their court-ordered sentences.

Maine District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz issued an order Sept. 8 that said in light of potential public health concerns over COVID-19 expressed by jail officials it would be imprudent for defendants to serve a sentence for which they have previously been granted a stay of execution. Moskowitz said anyone who shows up to serve a sentence will be given a copy of his order and be granted a further stay.

Anna Black, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections, said last week that the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak. As of last Friday, the facility had 49 cases confirmed, according to the Maine Department of Corrections COVID-19 dashboard that is posted on its website each Friday.

A Limerick man convicted of manslaughter in 2017 died at Mountain View Correctional Facility on Dec. 10, but the state did not reveal a cause of death.

More than 330 inmates at different correctional facilities across the state have contracted COVID. The Maine Correctional Center in Windham recorded the highest number, with 161 confirmed cases as of last Friday.

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