BELFAST — Much like the rest of the country, the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center underwent a stark transformation in March, adjusting policies and procedures in an effort to keep residents and staff safe from COVID-19. That included setting up Zoom visits among inmates and their families, and creating more space, and mandating the use of masks.
And then, one staff member suggested the Reentry Center get into the mask-making effort, for the sake of the community.
The Reentry Center, in Belfast, is designed to give incarcerated men the skills and experience they need to live successfully as citizens and employees after they transition into their home communities. The mask-making project involved nearly all the residents, and to date, 3,500 masks have been sewn and distributed to the local community.
Orders came in from food pantries, the American Legion, VFW, and then the schools — almost 2,000 masks made at the Reentry Center have been distributed to Waldo County schools.
Corrections Officer and Secretary Carlene Thornton led the charge.
“Carlene had the idea of starting this mask-making adventure,” said Corrections Administrator Ray Porter. “It’s been incredible. We’re a small operation, but I just couldn’t believe the amount that she and the residents put out there.”
“I’ve done all the sewing, but they’ve done all the cutting and prep work,” Thornton said. “It made it a whole lot easier for me to do.”
Thornton had two huge containers of fabric at home.
“We started with that, and didn’t realize it was going to get this big,” she said.
When people offered money for the masks, Thornton said they could pay in fabric.
“Then we started getting donations of fabric, and thread, and elastic,” she said. “That’s how we’ve done it, with huge donations from the community.”
When the sewing machine died, Thornton called the Waldo County Commissioners. She had a 500-mask order to fill but needed a sewing machine.
The go-ahead to purchase a new sewing machine was granted but, as it turned out, there was a dearth of them. Thornton said it took County Commissioner Amy Fowler a full day and trips to multiple stores to find the lone sewing machine now used by the program.
“She went from Brewer to Bangor, to Augusta, to Waterville, and this was the only one she found,” said Thornton.
But, the mask production line was back in business, and orders were filled. Now, a large bag of cut fabric remains.
“These are just extras that the [residents] cut out for me ahead of time, so we’re just going to finish what we have cut and go from there,” she said.
Staying safe at the Center
Corrections Administrator Porter said he had been paying attention to international news about COVID early in March. He decided then to make a number of changes, including the implementation of a mask requirement for any and all individuals in the reentry center.
Despite a recent report from a television station stating that visitors of the center are not required to wear masks, Porter said the report failed to mention that visitors have not been allowed in since early March.
Staff and residents of the center have been required to wear masks at all times (other than eating and drinking) since the center went on lockdown regarding visitors, according to Porter.
“We got 100 percent on the [Department of Corrections review of the facility],” he said.
“When I say lockdown I mean no one going out and no one going in,” Porter said. “The center also sent program staff home in March and we restricted movement and anybody coming in.”
One case manager has remained, who facilitates Zoom meetings with families.
“It’s really important for them to have that contact,” Porter said.
As for spacing during in-person visits from families, the Reentry Center set a picnic table set up roughly 18 feet from the small recreational area of the reentry center.
“They’ll sit on the picnic table and the resident will sit [in the rec area with a corrections officer],” he said.
Porter said residents understood when the facility went into lockdown; “it’s been a long journey since then.”
His next step, once he restricted movement, was to create space.
Some residents left on home-release, wearing ankle bracelets.
Others, who were inmates from the Dept. of Corrections, returned to jail.
“We got our numbers down to half capacity, which is 16,” said Porter.
Though the center was housing 12 people at the time of the interview, Porter said he expected that incoming residents from Knox County would bring the number back to 16.
“Our plan is to maintain that. I’m not looking to go back to double-bunking until we get clear of this.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org