LEWISTON — As state corrections officials struggle to contain an outbreak of the new coronavirus at their Windham prison, the counties’ jails have escaped a similar fate, Maine’s sheriffs report.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, who heads the Maine Sheriffs Association, said that as of Friday, none of the state’s county jails had reported any positive cases of the COVID-19 virus among their inmates, staff or vendors.

Meanwhile, four inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham have tested positive for the virus. The Maine Department of Corrections reported its first positive case May 19, two days after a male inmate in his 20s first showed symptoms of the disease. By Saturday, Maine DOC had reported four positive cases at the prison. As of Tuesday, the department had tested all 461 inmates at the facility, according to the department.

In an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills on May 15 in response to the pandemic, the Maine DOC may refuse to take sentenced inmates from county jails “to minimize the risk of introducing  COVID-19 into the department’s facilities.” That order follows guidelines established by the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention.

Seven sentenced inmates at Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn who normally would have been transferred to a Maine prison within a week of their sentencing are staying put under the terms of that order and in cooperation with Maine DOC, Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson said. The last time an Androscoggin County Jail inmate was taken to a state prison to serve a sentence was in mid-April, he said.

The Maine DOC has the authority take into custody a jailed inmate who has been sentenced and requires special services that only a state facility can provide, but none of the seven inmates at the Auburn jail as of Tuesday required that type of treatment, Samson said.

He said DOC Commissioner Randall Liberty had asked of the states’ county jails that no inmates except those who might need special services, such as mental health issues or have displayed extreme disciplinary issues, be brought to a state prison, at least until all of the inmates at their facilities, including in Windham, have tested negative for COVID-19.

Androscoggin County Jail isn’t the only one housing sentenced inmates who would otherwise be serving their sentences in state prison, Samson said. Cumberland County Jail in Portland has about a dozen. In all, county jails are holding more than 40 sentenced inmates who would have been transferred to prison, he said.

Androscoggin County Jail has been putting into initial quarantine incoming inmates and has carved out a second holding area for additional quarantine before they are allowed to enter that jail’s general population. No inmates nor staff at the Auburn facility have tested positive for COVID-19, Samson said.

Androscoggin County Jail, which can hold 160 inmates, on Tuesday had a population of 90, including 16 who have been sentenced. Of those, seven were to be bound for state prison.

Samson, area police and prosecutors began in March to make concerted efforts aimed at reducing the number of inmates at the jail in an effort to prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak that would require inmate isolation.

Having to house sentenced inmates who would normally be leaving the jail for prison makes that effort more challenging.

But Samson said he can understand the state’s argument, especially since the outbreak at the Windham prison.

“Obviously, having them in our facilities at the state’s request doesn’t allow us the opportunity to lower the headcount. But, at the same time, they’re also attempting to lower theirs,” he said.

“As much as I’d like to bring them their state inmates,” he said, “I understand why they’re asking us to hold them for now.”


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