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What is behind the effective lockdown at Middle River Regional Jail?

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The Middle River Regional Jail cited an uptick in COVID cases as the basis for canceling family visitation and inmate programs for 30 days.

We asked the question today: how many cases are we talking about here?

The answer: 10 inmates, to date, have tested positive, from an inmate population of 760+.

Andrea Collins, a member of a local group that is leading the effort to oppose a proposed expansion of the regional jail, wrote to us last night to see if we could get answers on the jail policy, which was announced in a press release on Tuesday.

Collins posited that the real reason for suspending visitation wasn’t an uptick in COVID cases, but rather staffing.

According to Collins, as of Dec. 7, the jail had 36 active openings for guards.

“I believe the lockdown has more to do with lack of staffing at the jail than it does legitimate COVID numbers. Can we ask the jail to disclose their COVID statistics?” Collins asked.

We did, in an email to the jail staff.

The answer back was another press release addressed to all local media outlets.

The release reported the number, 10, of inmates testing positive, and that the jail has 13 staff currently isolating at home, only seven of whom are vaccinated.

The jail also details that less than 50 percent of the current inmate population is vaccinated, that only one in 10 new arrestees is vaccinated, and that four of the 30 inmate housing units at MRRJ are in quarantine.

“Limiting inmate movement should limit the spread of COVID-19,” the release reports. “MRRJ has 760+ inmates in a facility designed for 396 inmates. Quarantining inmates completely separate from other inmates is challenging.”

We also asked a question on how MRRJ Superintendent Jeffery Newton came to 30 days for the suspension of visitors and movement among the inmate population, pointing out that the CDC recently updated its guidance for those contracting COVID to advise them to undergo a five-day quarantine.

The answer in the release: “MRRJ will continue to review the response to this uptick in positive cases.”

Which, as noted, is 10, from an inmate population of 760+.

As Collins pointed out in her communication with us, the restriction on visitors makes little sense.

“It is completely impossible for COVID to be transmitted through visiting of inmates,” Collins said. “The visit is through a glass wall over telephone, so incoming visitors can only transmit the disease among themselves, and it is impossible to transmit to inmates.”

The answer there from the jail: “MRRJ is not concerned with spread of COVID between visitor and inmate – MRRJ is concerned with inmate contact with other inmates outside their housing unit and public contact with MRRJ staff.”

But as Collins pointed out in communicating with us: “Any COVID being brought into the jail is likely being brought in by the employees, who are the only ones to freely go in and out of the inmate population. In order to visit, it is not necessary to be within 10 feet of a guard.”

The stakes here, in terms of the mental health of inmates and their families, are stark.

“A 30-day suspension of visitation is an impulsive reaction without any factual data to indicate that visitors affect COVID in the jail. It is a traumatic and psychological punishment to the inmates and their families,” Collins said.

Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press