COVID-19 outbreak at Windham correctional center has inmates questioning protocols

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A staff member at Maine Correctional Center in Windham tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 21.

By Nov. 6, a little more than two weeks later, cases at the facility included 96 inmates and 10 staff. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said he is optimistic the virus will remain contained to two dorms at the center. 

But inmates are worried about the outbreak and say the department is not taking enough precautions. 

Brenda Choate of Augusta said she received a call from her son Ernest Gagnon, an MCC inmate, who said he was “scared to death.” 

He told her his dorm went from 79 inmates to 34 in the previous week because people who tested positive were isolated in another unit. But he was worried because those left behind were not quarantined even if they were cellmates of an inmate who tested positive. 

The entrance to Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where more than 100 inmates and staff members have been infected with COVID-19 since mid-October. (Portland Phoenix/ Jordan Bailey)

“Every time somebody gets a fever or something, instead of quarantining that cell, like say there are four in a cell, they take out the ones that have the fever or test positive and leave the rest,” Choate said.

Liberty said that there is a lot of speculation on the part of the inmates. 

“They’re not aware, always, of the totality of the circumstances,” he said. “What we’ve done is we’ve taken those individuals that are positive, put them in another … unit to provide them more sustainable health care.” 

He added that very few of those who tested positive were symptomatic and those are only mildly symptomatic.  

Before the outbreak, all DOC facilities had been following protocols prescribed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention for correctional facilities, Liberty said, including enforcing social distancing and mandatory face coverings for staff and inmates, and enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols. 

The facilities began easing COVID-19 restrictions in June and July and were operating at “Phase 2” protocols before the outbreaks struck. This allowed work release to resume for limited crews on jobs that did not involve interactions with the public, transfers between facilities for inmates who tested negative for COVID-19, and noncontact visits with requirements for visitor health screenings and face coverings.

To help inmates through this time of increased isolation, they were provided computer tablets with access to educational, vocational, and wellness materials; 20 free text messages a week, and 20 minutes of free phone calls per week. In Phase 2, inmate self-serve dining at the facilities was suspended.

In addition, visits were limited to non-contact only, and inmates were not permitted to prepare their own food. Staff members were screened upon entry to the facilities each day with a temperature check and a health questionnaire. Any employee who fails that screening or exhibits symptoms is removed from the facility and given a rapid antigen test in their vehicle. 

On Oct. 21, the MCC employee displaying symptoms tested presumptively positive through the rapid test. He was immediately sent home to quarantine, and the test result was later confirmed by the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory.

Whenever there is a positive test result in a facility, that facility is locked down, meaning inmates are isolated in their cells. 

“This allows us to pause everyone, to isolate everyone, which stops the potential for cross-contamination, and then we do our contact tracing and do our testing,” Liberty said. “The most important thing here for us is the safety of the residents in our care and our employees and the way that we can stop the spread is by stopping movement.” 

Contact tracing is made easier at DOC facilities by surveillance cameras and body cameras. Using video and body camera footage, 35 employees were identified as close contacts of the positive employee. They were tested and sent home to quarantine. Ten of those tests came back positive. 

On Oct. 28, an inmate began exhibiting symptoms so he was isolated and tested and universal rapid testing for all staff and inmates at MCC began. Twelve of the inmates identified in contact tracing tested positive and were moved to a special unit designated for COVID-19 residents. By Nov. 3, 72 inmates had tested positive, all from Dorms 5 and 6, and they were moved to the COVID unit. Testing continued, and by last week, Liberty said a total of 96 inmates had tested positive. 

At Maine State Prison in Warren, meanwhile, a staff member tested positive on Oct. 18; since then three inmates and three staff have tested positive. The six positive cases were confined to the Intensive Mental Health Unit, and last week testing of the unit produced no new positives. 

Although the virus has so far been contained, Jeffrey Taylor, an inmate at Maine State Prison, said via text message that the situation at MCC has inmates worried, and “whatever protocols were in place before positive cases arised (sic) should be thoroughly reviewed and changed (more strict).”

He described the lockdown at Maine State Prison, which began Oct. 18.

“Right now, tension is rising due to this situation,” he said Nov. 2. “The Warden said he was going to work on getting better food (1 meal). The food is horrible. ‘Hot’ meals are in the past. They don’t allow us to heat it up in the microwave. They are allowing us a half hiur (sic) rec, it is all rushed to get it done in the AM, it is difficult for me to remember what day it is, seriously! It is mentally exhausting.”

He was more optimistic later that afternoon after another round of rapid testing.

“The whole unit is negative,” he said. “Things are going the best it can be!”

However, he said not all staff were taking proper precautions and wearing masks. He said he would see three or four staff and correctional officers crowding in a 10-by-10 room without masks. He claimed that specific staff and correctional officers were not abiding by the mask and 6-foot distancing mandates.

“It’s obvious they did not do this, because (the virus) is here,” he wrote. “If they were abiding by the guidelines, it would not be here.” 

Another MSP inmate, Steve Anctil, filed a grievance in May because he allegedly asked a correctional officer four times to put a mask on when he was talking within 3-4 feet of him, only to be “tagged in,” or locked in his cell the rest of the day by that officer. The grievance was dismissed for Anctil’s failure to attempt an informal resolution first, and the dismissal is currently under appeal in Knox County Superior Court. 

Liberty said that with 1,140 employees and nearly 1,800 incarcerated individuals, complaints are to be expected. 

“I receive on average 20 complaints a day,” he said. “When you have almost 3,000 people, you’re going to have people that have different opinions, and have different motivations.”

He said it is not uncommon for an inmate who may have been disciplined to try to get back at an officer by filing a complaint. 

But he said that there are methods in place to ensure COVID-19 safety standards are being followed. He and the deputy commissioners supervise the work of the wardens, who make rounds through each facility and enforce the mandates through their captains, lieutenants, and sergeants, Liberty said. They also do audits, and facility surveillance cameras are helpful here as well.

“Part of the duties of the warden is to designate someone to spend hours behind the cameras monitoring and auditing the movement of offenders and officers to see just exactly what the compliance level is for mask-wearing,” he said. “And if they are found to be in violation of the directive, we have progressive discipline that we discipline staff and our residents for failure to follow the face-covering (guidelines).”

Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.