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Despite High Transmission Risk, No COVID-19 Shots In Sight For Maine Prisoners

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public file
Outside at the Maine State Prison in spring 2017.

Even though Maine prisoners live in crowded, congregate settings, and some are older and have underlying health conditions, it’s unclear when they’ll get their shots.

Incarcerated people are four times more likely to get COVID than the general public, and as corrections officers begin rolling up their sleeves, advocates are pressing state officials to make prisoners a priority.

Over the past two weeks, a medical team has been visiting Maine state correctional facilities vaccinating prison staff. By the middle of February, Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty says more than 760 workers will have received their doses.

“That’s about 70 percent of our staff have agreed to take the vaccination. The governor, myself and all the leadership at MDOC have strongly encouraged our officers as a way to provide a safer environment for them and for the residents in our care to get vaccinated,” he says.

Strict protocols have been adopted to try to keep the virus at bay, including mandatory PPE and temperature checks for corrections officers and others entering facilities. In addition, Liberty says more than 7,000 COVID-19 tests have been administered to both staff and prisoners.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 50 prison staff have tested positive for COVID-19, along with nearly 160 prisoners, including one juvenile. One prisoner at Mountain Valley Correctional Center died from the disease.

“I think it’s probably accurate to say Maine’s case rate is low, and it’s not artificially low because of lack of testing,” says Lauren Brinkley Rubenstein, co-founder of the COVID Prison Project and a faculty member at the University of North Carolina.

Rubenstein has been tracking the rate of infection among prisoners and staff around the country, as well as prison vaccination.

“The public health mission is to put vaccines in places where we know there’s going to be the highest impact, and it really has to be jails in prisons, because that’s where many, many infections have been. And so, you know, we’re just trying to use the data to underscore that point,” she says.

Around the country, Rubenstein says 100 of the largest single-site COVID outbreaks have been in correctional facilities. And while Maine’s prison system has a low rate of infection compared to other states, it also has the advantage of having a low prison population — about 1,700 prisoners. So Rubenstein says the state could deal a blow to the coronavirus by inoculating a relatively small number of people at highest risk for the disease: those behind bars.

“Prioritizing medically vulnerable people and people over the age of 70 and incarcerated people in general is a matter of science, it’s a matter of law and it’s a matter of morality,” says Meagan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine.

In December, Sway’s group wrote a letter to the Maine CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services asking for incarcerated people to be prioritized in the state’s vaccination plan.

“It’s a matter of science, because people who are incarcerated can’t physically distance. It’s a matter of law because the state of Maine has a legal obligation to provide adequate health care,” she says.

And Sway says it’s a matter of morality, because incarcerated people should not be punished a second time by being denied adequate medical care.

“You know every day is just — we feel like it’s a smoldering fire that’s gonna break out and become an issue,” says Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce.

Joyce says he’s only just started to see a trickle of the staff at the county jail get vaccinated — three last week and a few on Monday. Recently, one prisoner who tested positive was released, returned and then tested positive again.

Joyce has no idea when prisoners will be vaccinated. The not knowing, he says, is frustrating.

“And again, we can’t shut our doors and say ‘Don’t come back.’ So it is a bit of a challenge,” he says.

Joe Jackson of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition says he’s hearing from prisoners who are facing extended lockdowns and loss of programming during the pandemic and feeling at heightened risk of transmission.

“I mean a huge portion of the population have been diagnosed with hep C, you know, so there’s — I mean there’s a lot of folks with underlying conditions in this population and people are really concerned,” he says.

Around the country, prisoners at federal correctional facilities and some state ones are starting to be vaccinated, many in places where the virus has already taken a much heavier toll.