Maine corrections officers have started to receive COVID-19 vaccines and advocates for incarcerated people say they also should be prioritized for vaccination.

Correctional facilities across the country have been hotspots for COVID-19 since the early days of the pandemic and more than a dozen states have begun vaccinating inmates or included them in the first phase of their vaccine distribution. Maine’s two largest outbreaks at single sites have been at a state prison and a county jail.

The state updated its plan this month to include law enforcement officers in Phase 1A, including police officers, firefighters and corrections officers. The Maine Department of Corrections said Tuesday that more than 200 prison employees, including medical staff and officers who work in quarantine units, have already been vaccinated.

But the department did not answer questions this week about the plan for vaccinating more than 1,700 adults and juveniles who are in state prisons. An outdated plan from October lists people in jails and prisons in Phase 2 of the rollout, which is not expected to start until June. Vaccines should be available in Phase 1B next month for people 70 and older and those with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19, but it is still not clear if inmates who meet those criteria will be included.

Currently, 38 people in state prisons are older than 70. Another 42 are between 65 and 69 years old. The department did not answer a question Tuesday about the number of people with health risks, but court documents in a lawsuit last year included an email from a top corrections official who said in May that more than 900 inmates had underlying medical conditions.

“We’re talking about them as one group, but we know that folks on the inside fall in many different groups,” said Joseph Jackson, a leader in the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “We’re really concerned that they’re being excluded.”

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine asked state officials to include people who live and work in prisons and jails in Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout. The ACLU estimated that incarcerated individuals have an infection rate that is nearly 500 percent higher than the state’s infection rate as a whole. A spokesperson for the civil liberties group said this week that it had not received a response to the letter.

“The state has a legal duty to take reasonable efforts to protect those in their custody from becoming infected with COVID-19,” Meaghan Sway, the organization’s policy director, said Tuesday. “Nothing is more reasonable than vaccinating the most vulnerable populations first, regardless of where they live.”

Anna Black, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, answered some questions from the Portland Press Herald about vaccinations for prison employees. She said more than 1,000 are eligible for a vaccine under the updated guidelines for Phase 1A.

The first in line were front-line medical workers, including nurses and behavioral health staff who work in the prisons, and officers who staff the isolation and quarantine units. Most of those people have received the vaccine, she said, and the department has turned its focus to other employees who have regular or intermittent contact with prisoners, including other officers, food service workers and maintenance staff. The final group to be vaccinated in this first phase will be probation officers and facility staff who have less frequent contact with inmates.

Roughly 30 percent of eligible staff have declined their shots to date, Black said. Employees who are not considered front-line workers and do not work inside a facility are not included in this current phase.

Asked about vaccines for officers in county jails, Black said the state has shared its plan with the sheriffs. A dashboard from the Department of Corrections indicated more than 1,400 people were in county jails at the end of October, but did not include a more updated census.

“The county facilities and their staff are responsible for the distribution of vaccines within their facilities; however, while MDOC is not in a supervisory role, it is working closely with county sheriffs and jail administrators to assist them in preparation for vaccination of staff,” she wrote in an email.

Black did not answer questions about when inmates would be vaccinated, whether the most vulnerable would get their vaccines before June and why prisons are not being treated like other congregate living settings, which are prioritized in the state’s plan. She deferred answers on those questions late Tuesday afternoon to two other state agencies.

The spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services could not be reached Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that the state is still considering which phase will include incarcerated people, and he said the vaccine supply from the federal government has been “inadequate and inconsistent.”

“The administration’s goal is to distribute its limited supply of vaccine to as many people as possible, who are at greatest risk,” Robert Long wrote in an email.

Gov. Janet Mills said this month that vaccinating corrections officers serves “a double purpose.”

“It protects them and their families, and it protects the people in their care, the residents of these facilities,” Mills said in a news briefing. “We think it’s first and foremost important to vaccinate the staff. Inmates, residents, will come at a later time, undetermined.”

Asked about inmates who are older or who have underlying medical conditions, the governor did not outline a specific plan.

“If there are two or three inmates in a particular facility who happen to be over 70, that’s not going to be as feasible from a logistical point of view, but our priority are people of that age group, wherever they are,” she said. “They’re not excluded, they’re not specifically included.”

Sway, the ACLU policy director, said inmates are still at risk even if corrections officers are being vaccinated.

“Vaccinating some prison and jail staff still leaves incarcerated people vulnerable to contracting COVID-19,” she said. “Staff who choose not to be vaccinated risk bringing the virus into jails and prisons. Once COVID-19 enters a facility, it has the potential of creating a massive outbreak because of the close congregate setting.”

Jackson said the delay in vaccines contributes to the fear that incarcerated people and their families are feeling.

“I definitely have spoken to folks on the inside who are really concerned,” Jackson said. “They feel like a sizable portion of the population falls in a high-risk category, and they are in congregate settings, and they cannot socially distance. They’re really worried.”

The Maine CDC is currently investigating two outbreaks at correctional facilities. At the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, three inmates and 10 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. At the Franklin County Jail in Farmington, eight staff have tested positive.

The state’s largest outbreak at a single location was at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where 160 people contracted the virus in the fall. That outbreak included nearly 40 percent of the inmates. Corrections officials have said at least three prison inmates have been hospitalized with COVID-19 complications during the pandemic, although the department has not reported any virus deaths.

The second largest outbreak was at the York County Jail, where 87 people tested positive. One man who was infected died just weeks later, and while the state did not classify his death as related to COVID-19, the medical examiner’s office found the virus contributed to his death. The Portland Press Herald also found that the jail flouted public health recommendations about mask wearing before the virus spread to nearly half of the inmates and correctional officers and into the community. A subsequent review by the Department of Corrections found that not all county jails had been following public health recommendations.

Note: The article was updated Wednesday, Jan. 27, to include a response from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

 

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