The exterior of the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — For the second time in as many months, nearly two dozen inmates at Androscoggin County Jail have refused their meal trays and presented administrators with a list of requests.

Chief among their complaints this time is a call for testing of inmates and staff for COVID-19, something already underway at the jail, according to Sheriff Eric Samson.

The inmates’ action comes two days after seven inmates tested positive for the virus.

Jail Administrator Jeffrey Chute said Saturday that out of a batch of 22 swab tests of inmates that were sent to the Maine Center for Disease Control, seven of them came back positive while the other 15 inmates tested negative.

Earlier this month, three transport officers at the jail had tested positive for the virus. All staff are expected to have been tested by Wednesday.

Until then, the jail had remained virus free.

On Monday, a corrections officer passed along a letter from  an inmate that listed more than a dozen items to be addressed. The letter purportedly represents the concerns of 22 minimum security inmates in two cellblocks at the jail, Chute said.

Starting Monday, inmates in those cellblocks had begun refusing food trays at mealtimes.

Samson said administrators had planned to check jail canteen accounts to see which of those 22 inmates were buying food from their canteen accounts out of concern that some inmates might not be accessing food at all.

He said administrators would speak to those inmates who aren’t getting meal trays and aren’t buying canteen food to find out whether they are forgoing food on purpose or being coerced into refusing their food trays and lack the funds to buy supplemental food.

While the letter seeks to have administrators provide to the inmates the test results of jail staff, Samson said the jail is following CDC guidelines, which don’t allow disclosing names of individuals tested, but instead reports results of positive cases by facility, divided into staff and residents.

Whether testing inmates or staff, “apparently, they’re questioning our integrity in regards to what we’re telling them for the results, which again, is unfortunate, and actually ridiculous, because for the health and safety of the officers and the inmate population, it would offer us no benefit to stick a positive person in someplace” and say their test result was negative, Samson said.

Corrections officers who staff those cell blocks with inmates who’ve tested positive must dress in full protective equipment.

“As far as everything COVID related, we’re doing as much precautionary and preventative as we can,” Samson said.

Other requests listed in the letter include personal hygiene products, which Samson said are available at the canteen.

The letter asked for wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispensers.

Samson said the jail is limited in the types of chemicals allowed within the building. Alcohol-based products are excluded because they’re flammable.

Hand soap is provided to the inmates; brand name soap is available at the canteen, he said.

The letter requested that microwave ovens and hot pots for boiling water be placed in every cell block. For security purposes and due to the jail’s design, that can’t be done, Samson said.

The inmates are seeking a better nutrition plan and access to the recreation area every weekday.

Samson said the only weekdays inmates are not allowed in the recreation area are holidays, due to staffing. On those days, they’re given extra time in the jail’s day space, he said. When the weather drops below a certain temperature, inmates are kept inside in keeping with Maine Department of Corrections standards, Samson said.

The letter referenced concerns about the movement of some inmates from one cellblock to another. That is done with inmates who’ve tested positive for the virus for quarantine and isolation purposes as proposed by Maine CDC and recommended by the jail’s medical provider, Samson said.

The letter said inmates want medical and mental health and dental care, things already provided at the jail.
“Maybe not to the level they want,” Samson said. “They get treated for their health and well-being.”

The hunger strike held by many of the same inmates a month ago focused on inmate testing; the strike ended after one day.

Samson said administrators planned to meet with the striking inmates on Wednesday to discuss their concerns.

He said he hopes to resolve these issues quickly and will urge the inmates to go thorough the jail’s formal grievance and complaint processes as issues come up in the future.

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