As part of my research with the Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College, I spent many days last fall interviewing women in county jails. All of the women we interviewed were incarcerated because of events directly linked to their substance use. None of them would have been incarcerated if the state did not view problematic substance use as a crime rather than a medical condition, and if Maine had offered a robust social safety net, providing desperately needed mental health, domestic violence and other family services.

Sheriffs and correctional officers have been put in the unenviable position of attempting to be social workers, trying to manage complex social crises for which they are untrained and unprepared. Now they are asked to be public health experts as well.

Maine is faced with a terrible challenge: the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Jails and prisons are uniquely unable to follow the CDC guidelines for protective measures. Incarcerated people and guards are packed together, unable to follow social distancing guidelines. Jails and prisons do not offer adequate health care during the best of times. Regular hand washing and access to the other sanitary measures is limited. Keeping incarcerated people in these conditions is a serious threat to public health, to those inside the walls and to everyone in our community.

Maine abolished the death penalty in 1887. We can’t let COVID-19 bring back the threat of death to every incarcerated person, their loved ones and their communities. Gov. Mills and Corrections Commissioner Liberty must release them all to protect us all.

Winifred Tate

director, Maine Drug Policy Lab at Colby College


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