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Cumberland County Jail declares emergency amid COVID-19 outbreak and staff shortages

The Cumberland County Jail is in the midst of a crisis with an outbreak of the delta variant defecting both inmates and staff members. That comes amid an ongoing staff shortage at the jail. According to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce, only about 60% of corrections staff are vaccinated currently and only about 50% of the inmates are. Both of those numbers are well below the state average for vaccination last week and emergency was declared and inmates are in lockdown. Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce spoke with All Things Considered Host Jennifer Mitchell.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jennifer Mitchell: So why was an emergency declared at the jail. And you know what's so extraordinary about this situation?

Sheriff Joyce: This isn't the largest outbreak that we've had. However, this is the largest outbreak we've had that is involved, our employees, and we're already experiencing all time lows. As far as staffing, we've we've been experiencing that for the last two years. Now with 67. Well, actually, it's currently 64. It was 67 last week, with three new hires, losing 13 people to COVID. And having them go out for 10 to 14 days, just exacerbated an already difficult situation.

So unlike a fast food business, the jail can't easily just shut the door and say sorry, it's drive-thru only today. So is intake open? Are more people coming in? And how is the jail actually coping with providing its services and the programs that it does under the current situation?

So we're closed down or the accepting inmates rate or moving in, they tell for that, that wasn't a decision that I like to make, you know, crime is still occurring out there. Whether it's in greater Portland, or out in the rural parts of Cumberland County, it is a hardship not to have intake open. But if we're gonna get wrap our arms around, fighting COVID and getting it out of the facility, we can't be focused in here with an influx of people coming in the door. I told the other jails that are accepting our inmates that, you know, no more than three weeks, I'd like to think we're not going to go through weeks.

So obviously, that means a limitation on people coming in and people going out, how's that affected he mission of the of the jail, the programs and the staff?

So we've shut down, we shut down our premier program of community corrections where we actually a lot of people go out into the community and needs to go out in the community and work. And we utilize those folks to cover some of the vacancies in the jail. You we've actually converted some of our programs, people who are corrections officers back to work in post. So right now we're not offering programs in order to keep the posts we have a minimum staffing level that we try to maintain every every day, you talk about social distancing, it's almost impossible to social distance. That's why currently we have the inmates in a lockdown situation is because we think we've pretty much isolated COVID to one pod, and the more that people are out, the more it's just gonna get passed around within the jail. So you know, I'd much rather deal with 14 cases than 284 cases, I can tell you of working in the jail the last couple of weeks, you know, you got to keep reminding people put your mask on, put your mask on, and then you've got people that philosophically, you know, disagree with a mass aspect, and they want to challenge you every, every bit of the day. So it is a challenge when you've got the potential of 300 people at one time in a building, and there's not a lot of fresh air. There's not a lot of space. We're constantly balancing public safety with public health. It's a challenge that I never would have expected two or three years.

How is the corrections work getting done? You mentioned that there have been staffing issues for many years, exacerbated now because of COVID-19. Are there concerns now about staff burnout and overtime? And you know, are you pulling shifts yourself?

Burnout and employee mental health is a concern. Yes, we're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So those posts have to be filled. And what we are trying to do is we've put out mandated overtime where people sign up and they can kind of control when they're available. We also have hold overs, which is you know, you come to work today and you're told partway through the day that you can't go home we need to fill your shift. My command staff over the summer my job command staff were taking on shifts so that people could get some time off spend time with family etc. That's wrapped up as of late to my chief deputy and I picking up shifts I'll be working my second one tonight. But we've been periodically trying to help out as well so people get time off to be with their family.

What about the residents? What kind of effect is a lockdown like that have on the population. It doesn't seem like you know, spending 23 hours in a cell can be very good for morale. And, you know, are there any concerns that in the long term a lockdown like that might set some residents back or make things harder for everybody? And how long will it continue?

You're right, being locked down for any period of time is not healthy. You know, for the last two years, they've had minimal in person contact with family members, we did get them tablets, so they have the ability to visit with their family a little more frequently, by virtue of sending messages with their tablets. Hopefully we get the video visitation with those. We've tried to give free phone calls. One of the corrections officers was mentioning that it seemed like the inmates got like double helpings of meals and they were even noticing it. Well, that's just to try to balance things out to say, look, you know, we understand that there's a hard shift for you. There's a hard shift for the employees trying to muddle through this whole thing. And together with a little give and take. We will get through this and we will be better for it.