Inside the Cumberland County Jail, there is no church and there is no counseling.

Work assignments and GED sessions have stopped, too. So have the parenting classes and cooking lessons, the support meetings for alcoholics and substance users, the visits from friends, family, even attorneys.

The near-total lockdown has persisted for weeks, brought on by dwindling staffing levels and a recent COVID-19 outbreak that at its peak infected nearly two dozen staff and detainees.

While most people at the jail  have not been convicted of a crime, they are made to endure conditions akin to solitary confinement. A majority struggle with mental health problems, substance use disorder or both.

The psychological toll is excruciating, inmates say.

One man said he has been medicated to quell emotional outbursts, the first he’s had in his life. A relative of another said she feared her brother could try to kill himself while cooped up inside. A third said suicide attempts appear to have increased, judging by how many times staff call a “code white” on the jail-wide intercom, code for an attempt at self-harm.

“I understand we’re here because we committed crimes or are accused of committing crimes, that’s all fine,” said Dustin Beach, 30, who expects to serve a decade in federal prison after pleading guilty to interstate stalking. “But come on man, this is cruel and unusual.”

They want simple comforts. To be outside in the sun and to exercise, even if it’s behind razor wire. To have regular access to deodorant and toothpaste. And to see their relatives in person or watch TV without paying exorbitant fees now required to use a system of personal tablet computers that pipe in paid entertainment.

“It’s honestly driving me insane,” said Zachary Conway, 25, who has been awaiting trial for two years on three counts of armed robbery. “Being locked in a cell all the time, it’s hard to control how you feel sometimes. Emotions come and go as they please.”

Jail administrators told county officials last week that inmates are locked in their cells for 23 hours each day – statements first reported in the Press Herald this week.

But in interviews, half a dozen incarcerated people or their relatives were emphatic: inmates are being let out only for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. Corrections officers also use the threat of even less time out to deter misbehavior. All of the inmates and their relatives reached out to the Press Herald to correct the record, they said, and to describe what it’s like inside.

INMATES SAY CONDITIONS INHUMANE

Most of those who spoke from inside the jail said they were afraid of retaliation by the corrections officers or the justice system, but reached out anyway because they feel the current conditions are inhumane. One said the media attention has resulted in slightly more time out of cells, but it’s unclear how widespread that may be.

“An hour is not true,” said Sharon Trace, 68, of Saco, whose son, Sean Grossman, is serving time for a probation violation. “It’s 20 minutes for a shower and then 20 minutes to stretch. He said it’s awful.”

Grossman, 31, of Westbrook, was locked up this spring after he began using opiates again, spiraled out of control and overdosed. He has battled addiction for a decade, his mother said.

Because Grossman does not have a cellmate, he is effectively serving solitary confinement. During previous jail stints, he sought counseling from the narcotics anonymous meetings and found fellowship during Bible study groups.

“That was all gone when he got in at the beginning of April,” Trace said. “No groups, nothing. He really struggled.”

The jail has been in lockdown since at least mid-September, after a COVID-19 outbreak sickened nearly two dozen inmates and staff.

Some time after the pandemic began, the jail gave each person inside a tablet computer for entertainment and communication. But sending an email to a relative, listening to music or watching a movie costs money, and the fees add up fast, Trace said. Lately her son has begged her to put more money on his account so he can have something to do. Trace said she worries for other people in jail who don’t have family or funds.

In previous incarcerations, she said, he was free to move around his housing unit and watch television with other prisoners free of charge.

COUNTING BLOCKS IN THE WALL

For Beach, who is awaiting federal sentencing, officials’ misleading statements about how much time those in jail get to spend outside their cells was an insult. He has been jailed at Cumberland County for three years and called the newspaper Thursday to correct the record.

“Don’t even lie about 20 minutes,” said Beach, who comes from South Carolina. “It’s a lot to somebody who knows how many blocks are on the wall because he sat in his cell so long every day that there’s nothing else to do but to count ’em.”

The length of Beach’s stay in Maine is due in part to the coronavirus, he said. Federal court activity halted during the pandemic. And although he agreed to a plea deal five months ago, Beach still must be sentenced before a judge. He has no court date in sight, he said.

Conway, who is facing the armed robbery charges, said he was prescribed medication – Trileptal – to control his mood, his first time on such a drug. He doesn’t like it, but it helps him stay calm. He spends hours each day pacing in his cell, or lying on his bunk and staring at the wall. He thinks about how he can fix his life, and wonders when he will get to see the inside of a courtroom.

More reasonable bail amounts could help reduce the population inside, said Conway, who is being held in lieu of $20,000 cash. Being free also could help him defend himself against his charges, he said, but he has no trial date, one of thousands of defendants caught in a COVID backlog the courts are struggling to address.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said his office is re-examining bail amounts and the cases of people ordered held without bail, and pointed out that the jail’s population of about 300 in roughly 30 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

He again instructed his office this week to negotiate with defense attorneys to seek plea deals or change bail conditions, but results have been mixed, he said, and Sahrbeck wasn’t able to offer hard numbers of people released since the jail emergency was declared Sept. 29.

The most effective solution is to jail fewer people in the first place, especially now with the risk of COVID, said Emma Bond, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Bond wants Sheriff Kevin Joyce to exercise his power to release sentenced inmates early, and Sahrbeck’s office to be more judicious about recommending pretrial lockup at the earliest court appearances, when bail is first addressed.

STAFFING IMPINGING ON RIGHTS

“The actual reason why some of these practices are being used is a staffing-and-resources issue, which is not a reason to impinge on people’s constitutional rights with this inhumane practice,” Bond said.

The number of suicide attempts inside the jail this year is unknown. Joyce said he would respond to a reporter’s questions after the three-day weekend.

“As you can imagine I am very busy and I have just been able to start getting caught up on emails,” Joyce wrote Friday afternoon. He did not provide an update on the number of infected staff members and inmates. At last count, seven staff and 12 inmates had tested positive for the disease.

He and other top administrators are filling line shifts inside the jail to help make up for the shortage of workers.

Dakota Ballard has been in the Cumberland County Jail since Aug. 28 on driving and domestic-abuse related charges. He says he has spent most of the days in lockdown, leaving his cell for only short periods each day. Photo courtesy Elaine Ballard

Devaney Ballard, 30, who lives in Florida, said she was asked to call the newspaper by her brother, Dakota Ballard, 24, who faces several driving and domestic abuse-related charges accumulated since 2020. Ballard was most recently booked into jail Aug. 28. He’s spent most of the days since in lockdown, she said.

“There’s inmates in there trying to kill themselves because they can’t handle that much time in their cell,” Devaney Ballard said in a phone interview from Florida. “Some of them don’t have families to call.”

Ballard’s mother, Elaine Ballard, 53, of Yarmouth, said her son struggles to get necessities like toothpaste and deodorant.

“If you can’t even get the basics, it makes me worry about other things,” Elaine Ballard said. “He’s said it so many times, this has been ongoing. They’re always short of something he needs.”

STRESS AFFECTING STAFF

In interviews, some prisoners said they recognize the exhaustion of the overworked jail staff and empathize with them. The county budgeted this year to employ 129 corrections officers, but has roughly 65 on staff now. Although 16 more reportedly are in the hiring pipeline, all might not make it through training — and the problem has existed for years.

The staff that remains has worked more than 2,100 forced overtime shifts so far this year.

“They’ve definitely been a lot less compassionate,” said David Phillips, 30, who is awaiting sentencing on a federal charge for being a felon in possession of ammunition. “The human element of our treatment has diminished. (The correction officers) are also disoriented. When someone’s working a 70- to 80-hour week … their wherewithal slowly slips.”

Phillips said he noticed one officer appeared to be “toying” with the prisoners by not telling them when their time had come to leave their cells. Phillips confronted the officer about it.

“I said, ‘Sir, I’m not a mind reader,'” Phillips said.

The officer wrote him up, and Phillips said he was denied social interactions for 48 hours as punishment. Now he hopes that ding on his record doesn’t hurt him when he is sentenced.

“I had a dream the other night that I felt the sun on my skin, and I woke up crying,” Phillips said. “These little things just eat away at you. And when you bring it up, it’s always COVID or staff shortage, and that covers all the bases for them.”

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