A corrections officer at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta walks Monday past a razor-wired fence at the jail, which is reporting a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates and staff members. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta has prompted the county sheriff to alert local law enforcement agencies the jail will temporarily limit the number of inmates it accepts.

Sheriff Ken Mason said Monday that fewer than 10 people had tested positive for the coronavirus, including staff members and inmates. He said the number of cases was enough for the jail to be considered in outbreak status, under Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines.

Law enforcement agencies within Kennebec County have been notified of the situation and are limiting the number of inmates they bring to the jail until it is no longer in outbreak status, the sheriff said in an interview.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason

Mason said the jail’s restriction on accepting certain inmates does not mean no one will be arrested or can be brought to the facility at 115 State St. He said those deemed dangerous or suspected of violent crimes, such as domestic violence, will be arrested and held at the jail. However, suspects accused of lesser crimes and not considered dangerous, or most suspects with arrest warrants, will not be admitted into the jail during the outbreak.

“We’ll quarantine it and work through it,” Mason said of the outbreak at the jail. “We’re telling (law enforcement agencies in the county) there are only certain ones we’ll admit into the facility. If somebody gets hooked up for possession of drugs, you know, not a pound or anything, we’re saying give them a summons. But anybody deemed dangerous, we’re going to deal with them.”

Mason said the area’s police chiefs have worked with the jail throughout the pandemic to limit the number of inmates.

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The jail’s inmate population usually numbers about 140 and the staff about 50, according to Mason. He declined to provide more details on the numbers of staff members and inmates who had tested positive.

Outbreaks of COVID-19 at prisons and jails have occurred elsewhere in Maine, but this is a first at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility’s since the pandemic began in March 2020, according to Mason.

Mason said members of the jail staff have done well to minimize the spread of the virus while following COVID-19 guidance from the state CDC and Department of Corrections.

“I’m very proud of my staff. They’ve done an excellent job since March of 2020,” Mason said. “If anybody was thinking it was not going to get into the facility at some point, they were in dreamland. That it took this long and is minimal is worth kudos to staff.”

A corrections officer Monday enters the Kennebec County Correctional Facility in Augusta. The jail is reporting a COVID-19 outbreak among inmates and staff members. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Mason said he was notified of the outbreak Saturday night.

He said all inmates are tested when they arrive at the facility. They’re later retested, as are staff members.

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Representatives of the Maine CDC are expected Thursday to help the jail test all inmates again. With everybody being tested, Mason said, the number of positive cases could increase.

The Kennebec County jail began limiting its inmate population shortly after the pandemic started and COVID-19 cases began increasing.

A state Department of Corrections inspection of Maine’s 15 county jails in August 2020 examined the protocols at the facilities and found the Kennebec County jail was the only facility observing social distancing measures, while not following other criteria, such as masking and screening for symptoms.

At the time, no case of COVID-19 had been reported at the county jail, and Mason said his staff implemented the recommendations of the Department of Corrections the day after the inspection.

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