Maine's Department of Corrections says it's received the results of 221 COVID-19 tests on prisoners and staff at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and all tests so far have been negative. Additional results are expected in the next several days as the state testing lab runs the 484 samples the DOC submitted.
All prisoners, staff and contractors at the prison have submitted for testing, officials say. The tests were in response to the discovery at the facility of the first confirmed case of a prisoner with COVID-19.
Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty says the man in his 20s has mild symptoms and has not required hospitalization, but he is in isolation.
As a precaution, all 500 remaining prisoners and staff at the facility are also being tested and those who may have been exposed to the virus are being quarantined for 14 days.
"Right now they're quarantined in their cells, and they're separated, so they're just one individual per cell,” Liberty says. “If the contagion expands we can expand into larger areas, much as you've seen nationally in gymnasiums and that sort of thing, where they're spread out 20 feet apart to prevent cross-contamination."
Liberty says the state has been fortunate to have gone three months without a prisoner testing positive until now. The DOC has taken steps to try to limit transmission of the virus, including ending visits, requiring staff to undergo daily medical tests and implementing enhanced cleaning practices and social distancing.
According to the Marshall Project, which is tracking COVID-19 in prisons and jails, more than 25,000 prisoners have tested positive around the country, and nearly 400 have died. A few states have moved toward universal testing of prisoners and guards, including those who are asymptomatic, but Liberty says only individuals in the Windham facility are currently being tested.
Earlier on Wednesday, Liberty said “I’m confident that we're prepared to deal with COVID inside our facilities."
Advocates and others have urged the DOC to release more prisoners, especially those with underlying medical conditions, as some other states are doing, but Liberty says there are several factors to consider.
"We've released in the neighborhood of 105 individuals on secure community confinement, and the question becomes one of security and safety and public safety releasing these offenders."
For example, individuals who are considered dangerous or who have been convicted of serious crimes such as drug trafficking or where a victim is involved will not be released to community confinement. Those who are released, Liberty says, must have access to drug treatment, if they need it, housing and employment.
"If one of those components is missing or they can't self sustain or they have no place to go, the recidivism rates are very high and it's not really fair to the community or the individual to be released in an environment where they're not supported and can't support themselves." Liberty says.
All three things are challenging to secure during normal times but Liberty says during the pandemic they are even more difficult to find, especially as halfway houses and treatment providers have closed their doors or suspended service and unemployment has soared to record highs.
Originally published May 20, 2020 at 11:09 a.m. ET.
This story was updated at 6:38 a.m. May 22, 2020, to reflected updated testing numbers.