May 25, 2018
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A $280,000 drive for justice

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — Personnel at the Penobscot County Jail have walked inmates a few yards to Superior and District court for more than a century.

When the $37 million Penobscot Judicial Center opens next month, deputies will have to load prisoners into a van and drive them from Hammond Street to the new courthouse on Exchange Street.

That short drive and the need for increased security at the new building will cost the state $280,000 a year, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said Tuesday.

The money would be used to hire five or six part-time corrections officers, he said.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved the consolidation of the county jails under the state Department of Corrections. Members of the state Board of Corrections met Tuesday with jail and county officials to discuss transportation matters, tour the jail and inspect water damage.

The board, a volunteer panel made up of lawyers and state and county officials, makes budget recommendations to the Legislature. It also must approve capital improvements at those facilities.

In addition to the request for more officers to transport prisoners, Ross will include in his proposed budget an emergency request for $100,000 to repair structural damage at the jail. Water is leaking through the roof into cells, hallways and offices from the outdoor recreation area, he said.

That budget also will include $150,000 in capital expenditures to convert offices in the jail to allow for videoconferencing between the new courthouse and other court and jail facilities around the state.

Lt. Keith Hotaling of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department told Board of Corrections members before the tour of the jail why transportation costs would increase dramatically when the new courthouse opens.

The jail has a nine- and a six-passenger van, he said. Jail personnel transport more than 4,600 prisoners a year — an average of about 90 a week — from the jail to a courtroom, he said. Some days, he said, jail officers will have to run more than one van or make several trips to the courthouse if many inmates need to appear before a judge.

“Some days, we may take over three inmates,” he said, “and some days we might take over 40. Our numbers for first appearances [in District Court] are especially high after a three-day weekend and even higher with state furlough days on Fridays that turn them into four-day weekends.”

The need for more personnel, he added, also is being driven by the increased number of courtrooms at the new 86,000-square-foot, 3½-story building that combines the Superior and District courts. The secure setup at the new location, set to open Nov. 23, keeps prisoners from passing through sections of the building used by court staff and the public.

The new facility will have seven courtrooms. The current buildings have two courtrooms in the Penobscot County Courthouse and three in District Court.

In the past, court officers have been available to assist in overseeing prisoners, according to Hotaling, but the judiciary has said that they would no longer be able to relieve corrections officers.

“This means that we need one or two officers to be in each van,” Ross said. “We need one or more to stay with them once they are in the building and in the two holding areas. If there is more than one courtroom running, we need one or more corrections officers to be in the courtroom with them.”

Installing a videoconference area in the jail would cost an estimated $150,000, according to Bill Collins, administrator for Penobscot County, but would displace other employees. County commissioners have not made a decision about how the space being vacated by the courts would be reconfigured or when.

Those renovations might be delayed if the federal court system rents space from the county while the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building on Harlow Street undergoes a $53 million renovation of its own, Collins said.

Other counties appear to have saved transportation costs by using a videoconferencing system but Penobscot County has not had space to set up the system in its facilities, he said.

Transportation costs to take one inmate at a time to other counties for court appearances also could be reduced with video conferencing, Hotaling said.

As for the roof repair, the state would not have to bear the cost alone, Collins said. Before the jail consolidation, the county set aside $150,000 toward the repair. About $4,000 of that has been spent for an architect to make recommendations about what should be done to correct the problem. The cost is estimated to be $250,000.

Water from the floor of the recreation area, built off the second floor and over a section of the jail added in the 1980s, is making its way into different areas of the first floor of the facility.

“Two days after it rains,” Ross said, “it begins leaking in some of the cells in maximum security.”

The proposed fix would include building a roof over the area, he said.

The jail is required to allow inmates the opportunity for exercise and recreation.

Jail and county officials Tuesday urged the Board of Corrections to make a decision next month so roof repairs can begin as quickly as possible before more damage occurs.

“The tour demonstrated our need for a roof repair in the jail facility,” Commissioner Tom Davis of Kenduskeag said after the tour. “We opened their eyes, but I don’t think we opened their pocketbook.”


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