The Maine Department of Corrections said Wednesday that it is testing nearly 700 inmates and staff at its prison in Windham in response to an inmate’s confirmed case of COVID-19, but it will not conduct mass testing in other facilities.

The department confirmed the case at the Maine Correctional Center on Tuesday. The man in his 20s is the first inmate at one of the state’s prisons to have the disease caused by the coronavirus. That result triggered testing that will take place over three days for everyone who is incarcerated or employed at the Windham facility. The Department of Corrections announced Wednesday night that the first 148 tests – 64 staff and 84 inmates – were negative.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said he does not plan to conduct the same widespread testing in the state’s five other correctional facilities, including a women’s re-entry center on the Windham campus. He said that strategy follows federal guidelines, and he credited employees for following pandemic protocols, like daily screenings when they come to work.

“We’ve had great success with what we’ve done so far, and I deeply appreciate all the efforts of my employees at the Maine Department of Corrections,” Liberty said.

Before Tuesday, the department had tested 27 adults and five youths. More than 1,900 adults and 30 juveniles are incarcerated in state prisons.

But the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report last week that identified testing as a potential strategy to prevent outbreaks in those facilities. Some states that have started to test more widely in jails and prisons are finding cases in people who did not appear to be sick. And more stakeholders in Maine, including two unions that represent corrections employees, are calling on the department do the same.


“Although symptom screening is important, an investigation of a COVID-19 outbreak in a skilled nursing facility found that approximately one half of cases identified through facility-wide testing were among asymptomatic and presymptomatic persons, who likely contributed to transmission,” the federal report said. “These data indicate that symptom screening alone is inadequate to promptly identify and isolate infected persons in congregate settings such as correctional and detention facilities.”

The authors recommended tactics like physical distancing, use of cloth face coverings and additional cleaning. They also noted that some jurisdictions have tried to reduce crowding by releasing people to home confinement or community supervision, a strategy that has been used in Maine but on a limited basis.

“Testing might become an important strategy to include when it is more widely available and when facilities have developed plans for how the results can be used to inform operational strategies to reduce transmission risk,” they wrote.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice, reported that aggressive testing caused a surge in the known cases in state prisons, which now number more than 25,000. A Reuters investigation analyzed four prison systems – Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia – and found that 96 percent of 3,277 inmates who tested positive for the coronavirus were asymptomatic.

In Maine, the call for mass testing in correctional facilities has been unanswered for weeks.

The NAACP branch at the Maine State Prison in Warren included that request in an April 29 letter to the governor and the commissioner. A group of 22 legislators did the same in a letter dated the next day. Representatives of two unions that cover corrections workers also have endorsed that approach.


“We join advocates and the other corrections union in calling for broader testing in all state correctional facilities,” said Jeff McCabe, director of politics and legislation for the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989. “Now is the time to test all workers and all those incarcerated to slow the spread and protect all workers. We can no longer wait.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine also has called for universal testing. The organization is representing two incarcerated men who are suing the department in federal court over its pandemic response. In a status report filed late Wednesday afternoon, staff attorney Emma Bond asked the court to order universal testing at other prisons as well.

“Jails and prisons across the country have become hotspots for the spread of COVID-19, and without more proactive measures it was only a matter of time before it happened in Maine,” Bond wrote in an email. “Now Maine DOC must step up its efforts to stop the virus from spreading like wildfire inside.”

Gov. Janet Mills this week expanded access to coronavirus tests. She has said the state wants to use its new testing capacity to fully implement universal testing in congregate care settings, such as nursing homes. Previously, the state was able to do so only after an outbreak.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office did not directly answer a question Wednesday about whether that universal testing strategy will extend to prisons and jails.

“The Department of Corrections will continue to evaluate its COVID-19 response plan, in close collaboration with Maine CDC, and make any appropriate adjustments to protect clients and staff,” Lindsay Crete wrote in an email.

The man who has testified positive at Maine Correctional Center is still isolated and has not needed to be hospitalized. The facility housed 399 men and 63 women as of Wednesday. It has 216 employees. A department spokeswoman said 187 people – 64 employees and 123 inmates – received tests on Tuesday.

An employee at the Bolduc Correctional Facility tested positive in March, but the department did not adopt its stricter protocols at that time.

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