A man incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham has tested positive for COVID-19, the first confirmed case in one of the state’s prisons.

The Department of Corrections announced the case in a news release late Tuesday afternoon. Commissioner Randall Liberty said the development prompted the tests of more than 230 inmates and employees Tuesday afternoon, although those results will not be available until Wednesday. He expected “a large majority” of the people who are incarcerated or employed at the Maine Correctional Center to be tested in the coming days.

Before Tuesday, only 16 men at that facility had been tested for the disease.

“The correctional facilities are a reflection of society overall,” Liberty said in an interview Tuesday evening. “As we’ve seen in Maine and other states, as we increase testing, more (cases) are revealed to us.”

He said he would look to the test results in coming days to see what other steps are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.

Liberty did not know the total number of employees and inmates at Maine Correctional Center on Tuesday evening. As of May 4, the most recent count posted on the department website, the population at the Maine Correctional Center was 413 men and 64 women. The nearby Southern Maine Woman’s Reentry Center on the same campus had a population of 84. The count did not include employees.

The release did not identify the man but said he is in his 20s. He arrived at Maine Correctional Center on March 3, began showing symptoms Sunday and was transferred to an isolation unit. Liberty said the man reported that he felt ill and had a mild fever.

Medical staff tested him Monday, and the department was notified of the positive test result Tuesday. The man is still isolated and has not required hospitalization.

In other states, the virus has spread quickly through prisons and jails. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice issues, counted more than 25,000 cases and at least 373 deaths among inmates in state prisons as of May 13.

In March, the corrections department began to make changes in its facilities in response to the pandemic, such as restricting visits. Liberty released a written plan with a phased approach, which ramped up in the event of a suspected or confirmed case. An employee at the Bolduc Correctional Facility tested positive in March, but the department did not adopt its stricter protocols at that time.

Since then, the department also started posting daily updates with the number of inmates tested. The count posted Tuesday did not include the positive test and subsequent testing Tuesday afternoon. It indicated that the department had tested 27 adults and five juveniles for the disease. Twenty-five adults and all five juveniles had tested negative. Two adults were still waiting for their test results, and one additional inmate refused to be tested. Most inmates who were tested were incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center.

In April, inmates and legislators wrote two letters to Maine officials to ask for more aggressive testing in the prisons, which is happening in some other states.

Gov. Janet Mills this week expanded access to coronavirus tests, and Liberty said he would expect more inmates and staff could be eligible under the new criteria.

“The testing that we’ve had access to had been adequate and I think has served our purposes well,” Liberty said. “We’ve had three months of this pandemic, and we’ve had no positive tests.”

The release said the department has now initiated its stricter protocols in response to the positive test. Those steps include locking down the unit where the man was before he went into isolation and suspending staff movement between facilities. Employees and inmates were already required to wear cloth face coverings, but Liberty said people in exposed areas will now have access to more advanced protection like N95 masks.

As of Tuesday, more than 1,900 adults and 30 juveniles were incarcerated in state prisons.

Maine advocates have been pushing for weeks for the department to release more inmates as part of its efforts to prepare for an outbreak here.

The state is reviewing candidates for home confinement more quickly and increasing the number of people who are finishing their sentences that way. But it is using the same criteria as before to determine who should be released and who should be denied. As of Tuesday, the number of adults on home confinement was 64.

The governor and the commissioner have not expanded eligibility for home confinement to additional groups of inmates or issued commutations, steps that have been taken in other states.

Liberty said the positive test result would not cause him to take more dramatic steps to reduce the prison population.

“I think those offenders that can be safely released in the community have been released,” he said.

The confirmed case came just days after two inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston sued the department in federal court in Bangor. The plaintiffs – Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale – said in their petition that they are medically vulnerable to the virus. They allege the department is violating their rights by refusing them release on medical furlough or home confinement.

“The combination of crowded settings, poor hygiene, and the absence of adequate testing in DOC facilities means that the virus could be rapidly spreading undetected throughout the prisons at this very moment,” their petition said. “This is not just a hypothetical risk. The outbreaks in correctional facilities around the country, illustrate that the risk of harm posed to prisoners, prison staff, and the entire community is real, concrete and imminent.”

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