The state of emergency at the Cumberland County Jail is over.

County commissioners voted 4-0 Friday morning to end the emergency declaration they made Sept. 29. Commissioner Tom Coward was absent from the vote, which was taken during a brief meeting.

The facility began accepting newly arrested people on Thursday. For three weeks, anyone arrested in Cumberland County had to be transferred to York County Jail in Alfred or Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, both nearly an hour from Portland.

Sheriff Kevin Joyce told the commissioners that two inmates at the jail who currently have COVID-19 are living in isolation while they recover and will be permitted back into the general population on Tuesday.

The return to normal jail operations means that new prisoners still will be quarantined to prevent the spread of infection before they are integrated into the general population, one tactic adopted during the pandemic to minimize spread of disease.

Joyce gave credit to the extraordinary work by an unusually small staff to keep the facility running. By early October, corrections officers had worked more than 2,100 forced overtime shifts this year. All corrections staff who were infected have recovered and returned to work, Joyce said in a statement released Friday.

“The staff are doing a phenomenal job,” Joyce said during the virtual meeting.

At the peak of the outbreak, 13 corrections officers and nine inmates tested positive for the disease, forcing the entire facility into a restrictive lockdown. Inmates were kept in their cells for at least 23 hours each day.

The county budgeted this year for 129 full-time corrections officers. It currently has 64 openings, but Joyce said there are “many more applicants” in the hiring process. When the outbreak occurred in September, the jail was down to fewer than 50 eligible workers.

The circumstances became so dire that county commissioners contemplated closing the jail altogether while the infections subsided. Inmates and their families said the lockdown was inhumane and dangerous to their mental health. Suicide attempts increased during the period, the county said. Last year, the jail averaged about one attempt per month. But during the three-week lockdown, four inmates tried to kill themselves.

The emergency gave Joyce the power to temporarily deploy corrections-certified workers who were not part of the National Corrections Employee Union Local 110, the union that represents the roughly 65 corrections officers at the jail, although it’s unclear if any patrol staff with corrections experience were ever deployed in the jail.

Joyce, Chief Deputy Naldo Gagnon and other members of the command staff took shifts during the emergency to alleviate strain on the corrections officers. Although COVID-19 infections have subsided, the jail is still working at half staff, and Joyce did not respond to a question about whether he and other top officials will continue to pitch in on the front lines.

Dennis Welch, former president of Local 11o, lauded Joyce for personally stepping up to help, but he warned that the staffing shortage will persist for months or years if the county does not take steps to attract and keep more new correction officers.


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