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Maine Superspreader: Few Masks at Wedding Lead to Big Problems at Prison

Within two weeks, other staff members and inmates at the jail began to test positive for COVID-19. By October 6, nearly 90 cases tied to the lock-up had been recorded — an incredible number for a jail with only 116 prisoners.

The cramped conditions of incarceration often render social distancing impossible, which has forced facilities to focus on other means of continuing the spread of the coronavirus. Mask wearing ranks at the top of that list, yet a policy reportedly in place at the York County Jail discourages the practice. Media revealed an email to staff saying prisoners could not bring masks into the facility.

“Inmates are allowed to remove the masks from their faces when in secured holding cell(s),” the email stated. “Inmates that test negative for COVID-19 will dispose of their mask, in intake and in front of staff.”

In October, Sheriff Bill King told the Portland Press Herald “that masks were not mandatory for inmates or guards most of the time before the outbreak. But people who contracted COVID-19 at the jail have now confirmed that masks were in fact not allowed or were discouraged.”

The prohibition on incoming prisoners being allowed to keep their masks would be explicable if the facility provided replacement masks, but there was no indication that new masks were available; rather, the jail administration also expected their employees to risk exposure and further spread of the virus.

William Doyle, a spokesman for the correctional officers’ union, said guards received “an informal directive not to wear masks in the housing units for fear of creating hysteria amongst the inmates.”

Tim Zerillo, an attorney for one of the many prisoners infected by COVID-19 inside the facility, had been contacted with numerous grievances since the start of the outbreak. “Those complaints were always that there were no masks at the jail and neither the detainees or the guards were wearing masks and that people were scared,” Zerillo said, “and I don’t think it’s just the inmates who were scared.”

Guards, who start with an hourly wage of $16.80, had asked for $3 an hour hazard pay as compensation for their increased risk. Sheriff King turned them down.

“The staff are furious right now. They are all feeling overworked, undervalued,” said Doyle. “This is a staffing crisis that’s been a long time coming because of the failure to plan by the department.”

The wearing of masks in public had been mandated by Maine Gov. Janet Mills in April and extended to include other establishments in July, yet Sheriff King had expressed doubt as to whether the executive orders covered York County Jail. The Maine Department of Corrections investigated the policies of 14 additional jails following the crisis at York County. Prisoners were not required to wear masks at four of them, but Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty promised those lapses were temporary.

“When we brought to their attention the deficiencies that they have,” Liberty said, “they corrected them and are in the process of correcting them.”

York County Manager Greg Zinser said in October that York jail was heeding best practices for testing, personal protective equipment and social distancing.

The Press Herald reported that earlier policies likely “contributed to the quick spread of COVID-19” through the jail, and that the county could be vulnerable to legal action as a result. It said several attorneys “have said they are considering taking cases” related to the outbreak.

“And tension inside the jail only increased after the recent death of an inmate who previously tested positive for COVID-19,” the newspaper said. “State and county officials have said his death was not related to the virus, but the state medical examiner’s office has not officially determined the cause.”