MADISON, Maine — A weekend open house welcomed more than 2,000 visitors to the newly completed $30 million Somerset County Jail and Sheriff’s Department.
“I was utterly amazed,” Phil Roy, chairman of the county commissioners, said Sunday. “We thought about 600 to 700 people would show up. This turnout was spectacular.”
One of those attending was U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud. “I gave him a personal tour,” Roy said.
Roy said he wanted to press Michaud about prisoners’ loss of federal entitlements, such as Medicare and Medicaid once they become inmates.
“The minute there’s a conviction and a person becomes an inmate, they lose their federal entitlements.” It falls to the jail system, then, to pay their medical expenses.
“We both consider this an unfunded federal mandate,” Roy said. “All the counties are in the same boat.”
Under the state’s jail consolidation system, Somerset County’s expenses are capped at $5.3 million. “Any additional funding requests would have to go to the Legislature, and with the state budget crisis looming, we know we aren’t going to get any more money from the state.”
Roy said Michaud promised to lobby on behalf of the entitlement issue.
Meanwhile, Roy said visitors were impressed with the jail, which will have its first overnight guests Wednesday. “I guess it is some sort of tradition,” Roy said, “so we three commissioners will be the first tenants at the jail. We’ll stay overnight Wednesday.”
He said he is prepared for pranks by the staff, which has been training in the jail for weeks. The 60 inmates being held at the old jail in Skowhegan will begin arriving after Thursday, he said, and the 30 to 35 inmates housed elsewhere across the state will be brought to Madison over the next few weeks.
Roy said many of the visitors were curious about the open, airy feeling of the new jail. Walls of windows provide natural light and cells line the outside of center activity areas and outdoor exercise pods.
Jail administrator Maj. David Allen has praised the new setup, saying that it is better for inmates and safer for corrections officers. The jail will operate under a direct supervision concept, which puts corrections officers directly in the pods with the inmates, rather than on the other side of bars.
Allen said many studies have shown that inmates react better under direct supervision.
The old jail, which is more than 100 years old, can hold about 55 male prisoners. The new jail can house up to 250 men and women, in separate units. Inmates should be moved into the new jail in increments, sometime in November.
The new space also will allow for many rehabilitative programs, such as literacy programs, a community garden and continuing education.
Steve Giggey, program director at the jail, and Patte Bowman, director of Adult and Community Education for SAD 54, are working together to develop the programs. They are working with SAD 54 Adult Education, Spurwink, the University of Maine System, Literacy Volunteers of Franklin and Somerset County, Kennebec Valley Community College and the Maine Humanities Council.
The $30 million facility was constructed by the Sheridan Corp. of Fairfield. SMRT Inc. of Portland provided the engineering, and contracting work was completed by Wright-Ryan Construction Inc. of South Portland.
Sheriff Barry DeLong and his staff already have moved into their new offices.
Meanwhile, the county commissioners have yet to accept or reject an offer for the old jail, which has been for sale. A local businesswoman and community volunteer, Amber Lambke, has offered to create a gristmill, bakery and artists outlet facility at the jail. Lambke is preparing a formal business plan for the commissioners’ review.