The Cumberland County Jail in Portland has capacity for 570 prisoners. It now holds about 370. (Courtesy CCJ)
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If you’re looking for the oldest prisoners in Maine, head to Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, just northeast of Bangor. There, you’ll find seven men over the age of 80. 

One of them is Robert Craig, born Jan. 5, 1936. He’s serving the third year of a 33-year sentence for murdering his friend Leo Corriveau, five years his elder, at Corriveau’s house in Presque Isle.

Craig killed Corriveau during an argument about a ride back to Florida, leaving him on the back lawn for his family to find 40 hours later. Craig claimed he acted in self-defense, and that Corriveau hit him first and was sitting on his chest, crushing the breath out of him, when he retaliated by strangling him with his bare hands. 

Another is David Hyatt, born July 9, 1939. He’s finishing up a six-year stint that’s meant to end in July, after being convicted of multiple counts of unlawful sexual contact with a child under the age of 12. 

Joseph Jackson, director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition: “Those folks that are eligible for release and could be in community custody should be released immediately.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is calling for Hyatt’s sentence to be immediately commuted, along with every other prisoner eligible for release in the next year, as part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But not Craig’s. For those the CDC would define as particularly vulnerable, the ACLU believes prisoners who are eligible for release within the next two years should be set free.

That wouldn’t do much for George Jaime, born Oct. 14, 1937, who’s serving 40 years for killing his girlfriend Starlette Vining and then incinerating her body in the basement of his Presque Isle pawn shop.

All of them are unquestionably at high risk of death if they contract the virus. 

Such are the dilemmas the criminal justice system is dealing with as it contemplates the possibility of COVID-19 getting into the jails and prisons and what would happen after that. How should Maine protect its incarcerated population?

On March 19, the Cumberland County Jail reported its first potential COVID-19 exposure, when a 41-year-old man participating in the Community Corrections Work Release program returned from an off-site job complaining of symptoms that included a fever. By midday Friday, March 20, the jail was still awaiting test results, Chief Deputy Naldo Gagnon said.

Gagnon said the man was quarantined in a negative pressure room where the air is contained. He also said the person’s temperature had already begun to fall back to normal.

A member of the Portland Police Department also reportedly tested positive and was self-quarantined out of state. Gagnon did not know if that officer had been in contact with any jail inmates.

“For anyone that’s under arrest,” he said, “the medical people go out to the vehicle and do a pre-screening, but we do not check the officers. We are checking our staff, their temperatures, before they go to work.”

According to the jail administrator, Tim Kortes, they’ve also taken a number of other steps to prepare and ward off the virus: All volunteer programming has been suspended, along with all visitation other than non-contact attorney visits (something every prison system in the United States has now done), and hand sanitizer, normally not allowed because of its alcohol content, is being provided to the inmates.

The good news there is that there were only 368 inmates at the Cumberland County Jail on March 17, with a capacity for 570, so there was some ability to spread people out. However, that might be affected by the school closings and other measures that are keeping children of staff members home.

“If you have a few people that are out of work,” Kortes said, “we have to look at alternative solutions to address our staffing needs.”

One alternative solution is to put fewer people in jail in the first place. The Maine Judicial Branch has vacated all outstanding warrants for unpaid fines or fees of any kind, along with failure-to-appear warrants. It has also moved criminal arraignments from three days a week to five, in order to give judges more opportunity to release people who otherwise might have been held in lieu of bail, if they don’t pose a threat to public safety. 

Even further, Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said, “we’re taking a look at every person and every situation where someone is being held on bail, or no-bail hold, and we’re reviewing those cases to see where we can come up with conditions for release, or decreasing the amount of cash bail that will get that person out onto the street.” This work had reduced the county jail population by more than 60 by March 21.

The ACLU would like DAs to go further, dismissing entirely all cases involving “minor offenses.”

The Maine Department of Corrections in a press release said inmates will get two free stamps, 20 free text messages, and 20 minutes of free phone calls per week. All probation check-ins would be via phone, and all work-release and community work programs have been suspended.

Commissioner Randall Liberty said 10 of the 50 youths at Long Creek have been scheduled for release by March 27, and potentially another four by April 1. Non-violent and “low-risk” inmates are being considered for release throughout the prison system, he said.

Should COVID-19 enter the jails or prisons, according to the Corrections release, they will enter “phase three” of their action plan. Will that be proactive enough to limit an infection that many feel is likely to occur? Who will be released?

“Those folks that are eligible for release and could be in community custody should be released immediately,” Joseph Jackson, director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition,  said. Anyone sentenced to less than three years, essentially should be immediately eligible, he added. 

Jackson emphasized that women’s facilities are particularly over-crowded and that re-entry houses, sober houses, and even family homes should be used to expand community custody.

“Once we do this,” he said, “there should be an effort to provide them with MaineCare and, if needed, housing and food security programming.”

Even those who are not eligible for release need support, Jackson said. No visitation means any barrier to contact with families and the outside world should be removed, including charges for phone calls and texting that are currently applied when prisoners use tablets and phones for that purpose. Those who have lost access to educational programming should be allowed internet access to online resources, he argued. 

Maine Youth Justice echoed Jackson’s and the ACLU’s calls, saying that the roughly 50 individuals incarcerated at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland should be released as soon as possible and provided with safe places to live. 

Gov. Janet Mills has the power to commute sentences. Judges have the power to amend sentences. The Department of Corrections and county sheriffs have the power to adjust living conditions. Will they wait for COVID-19 to enter the jails and prisons before taking more drastic action? Or will they be proactive and seek to limit an infection that many feel is likely to occur? 

Those are questions the criminal justice system is currently deliberating and that might particularly interest Dennis Allen, born June 10, 1940. He stands to remain at Mountain View until April 2021, when he’ll finish a four-year sentence for possession of sexually explicit material of a minor under 12.

Given the news that a member of the Kennebec County DA’s office tested positive for COVID-19 on March 18, and another individual had a positive test after spending time at the Capital Judicial Center March 16 and 17, it may be that time is running out to make the decision.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.