Fearing that the state’s prisons and jails are highly susceptible to the spread of coronavirus, advocates in Maine are calling for the release of inmates with less than a year left on their sentences, or who meet federal criteria for being susceptible to infection.

Meanwhile, jailers and prison administrators are scrambling to keep up with how to best protect their staff and inmates as the pandemic’s effects continue to disrupt more of society.

The state’s court system has already responded, pushing out civil court deadlines by 49 days, and cancelling judicial arrest warrants related to unpaid fees or for missing a mandatory court date, along with technical tweaks to allow video or telephone calls in place of previously required face-to-face interviews.

But advocates are calling for more sweeping measures, arguing that judicial officials have the same moral responsibility as other arms of the government to reduce potential harm during an international crisis.

“We urge you to develop and implement holistic policies that align with guidance from public health experts and that will minimize the harm inflicted on people involved in the criminal legal system – and, by extension, the harm inflicted on broader communities,” said the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter to all 50 states’ governors.

“Like all other public agencies, all aspects of the system – from policing and pretrial through sentencing, confinement, and release – will come under intense scrutiny for how the system responds to this national public health crisis.”

The ACLU is calling for governors to grant commutations to anyone identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as at particularly high risk of infection and whose sentence would end within two years; to release anyone, regardless of health status, who has less than one year remaining on their sentence; and to release anyone who is being held on a technical violation, such as violating the terms of probation.

Police should also exercise discretion and stop arresting people for minor offenses, or opt for a written citation that does not require immediate arrest, the ACLU said. Prosecutors and judges should avoid cash bail in favor of release; review cases from the last 30 days in which cash bail was imposed; and immediately begin waiving court hearings or permit them to be conducted via phone or video conference.

“Public health experts recognize that there is a heightened risk of infection for people who are involved in the criminal legal system, and that downsizing the footprint of the criminal legal system should be a part of the COVID-19 public health response,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division, in the statement.

COURTS DIAL DOWN OPERATIONS

State courts have not lifted deadlines on adult and juvenile criminal cases, child protection matters, orders for protection from abuse and harassment, and cases involving involuntary mental health commitment. Those provisions may change as the virus winnows its way into the criminal justice system.

On Wednesday, Kennebec County District Attorney Maegan Maloney said a staffer in her office had tested positive for the virus. Maloney has shut the office but for a skeleton crew to handle in-custody arraignments.

“Clearly the ongoing situation is developing, but our office will continue working to ensure that criminal defendants’ rights are upheld and the public’s safety interests are met,” Maloney said.

Shortly after her announcement, the court system announced that “an individual known to be in and around” the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta on Monday and Tuesday self-reported a presumptive positive test for coronavirus and is under self-quarantine. The courthouse will be closed while it is cleaned and sanitized, said Amy Quinlan, spokeswoman for the court system.

In Cumberland County, District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said he is working with Sheriff Kevin Joyce to identify nearly 200 inmates who might be eligible for modified bail conditions, although not all would be released. The goal, he said, is to find terms for releasing inmates on bail that protect both the defendant’s constitutional rights and public safety, while also ensuring the defendant shows up to court.

Sahrbeck said neither he nor the sheriff have discussed a target number of inmates to be released. Each case will be examined on a case-by-case basis.

Sahrbeck said he is unwilling to make any sweeping recommendations against prosecuting certain crimes, and he is also not ready to tell police departments how to enforce the law. Police have wide latitude to decide how to handle cases up to and including not making arrests, or issuing a summons that does not require jailing someone for lack of bail. Sahrbeck, like all district attorneys, has even more power to decide which cases to prosecute, even after someone is arrested and booked into jail.

“I am not making any determination that some crimes aren’t going to be prosecuted at this point,” he said. “It might be something we’ll look at in the future, but I can’t say on a blanket basis that we’re not going to prosecute certain types of crime.”

So far this week, Sahrbeck said, about half the number of inmates appeared in court on Monday and Wednesday for in-custody arraignments. It could be a sign that police are making fewer arrests, or that bail commissioners are offering more lenient bail amounts that inmates can afford to pay.

Sahrbeck said he was waiting on the sheriff’s office to provide more details on the roughly 196 inmates who could have their bail conditions modified or reduced.

SYMPTOM CHECKS FOR ARRIVING INMATES

Cumberland County Jail is the state’s largest pre-trial lockup with about 365 inmates. In addition to looking at reducing the jail population, Joyce said Tuesday he is working with jail staff and the for-profit contractor that provides on-site healthcare to ensure that every newly arrested individual receives an evaluation for coronavirus symptoms and risk factors.

In-person visits have been canceled, and other jail services for the public, including fingerprinting, have been temporarily suspended.

Joyce has also ordered hand sanitizer for inmates, who already have access to soap and sinks in their cells and are being encouraged to wash their hands regularly. The decision to order the hand sanitizer breaks standard prison policy, which prohibits inmates from possessing any substance that contains alcohol.

To be effective, hand sanitizer must contain at least 60 percent alcohol. Joyce said the circumstances warrant the deviation, but for now the point is moot. Hand sanitizer is unavailable and on backorder, he said.

Jail staff in general are trained to regularly deal with infectious disease, including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C and other transferable illnesses. But those cases are relatively infrequent compared to the threat posed by coronavirus.

“We are checking the inventory on how much of the equipment we have in stock, should we have a widespread outbreak,” Joyce said. “We are being told that supplies are limited and law enforcement is at the bottom of the priority list.”

Joyce said newly arrested people are typically evaluated for medical conditions anyway, but the process has intensified since the virus began to spread in Maine.

Every person who is brought to the jail is evaluated and questioned by a nurse before they are removed from the police vehicle that brought them to the jail, Joyce said. If an inmate shows symptoms consistent with coronavirus, the inmate will be provided a mask and moved to a negative-pressure cell inside the medical department, Joyce said.

Arrestees who show advanced signs of coronavirus will be transported to a hospital for treatment, he said.

“All arrestees will be continually evaluated throughout the booking process and asked questions related to the COVID-19 virus,” Joyce wrote in an email. “Corrections officers and patrol deputies are being asked to self-monitor and stay home if they start exhibiting any of the symptoms of the virus.”

Unlike paramedics and firefighters, each jail employee is not required to have his or her  temperature taken before or after each shift, although the measure has been discussed, Joyce said.

Corrections staff in other states are already falling ill from the virus.

In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio said Tuesday that he is evaluating the calls for compassionate release, according to NY1. On Wednesday, a corrections officer who worked at the gatehouse on Rikers Island tested positive for the virus, and another corrections employee has already died of the disease, the New York Daily News reports.

Some states have taken more drastic steps than others. Cleveland released 300 nonviolent inmates from its county jail, which houses about 1,900 people. In Wisconsin’s Racine County, a suburb a few mile south of Milwaukee with a population of about 198,000, the sheriff said he will turn away people arrested for non-violent offenses and give them a court date instead, the effective equivalent of personal recognizance bail.

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