MACHIAS, Maine — The Washington County board of visitors, a citizens’ watchdog group tasked with monitoring jail conditions and operations by state law, gave the county jail high marks Wednesday.
Sheriff Donnie Smith returned the compliments, saying, “I couldn’t have a better group of people on the board of visitors.”
The eight-member board was established by Smith in late 2007 as a blue-ribbon panel, and formally appointed in early 2008.
Not only do the members tour the jail and speak openly and confidentially with inmates, they also count on Smith to keep them updated with state policies and laws that affect jail operation.
On Wednesday, Smith told the board that a pretrial backup is clogging the system. Of 58 prisoners that Washington County is responsible for — 18 are housed across the state and 40 are in-house — only 13 have been sentenced.
“I’ve got people sitting in jail for 1½ years for burglary charges,” Smith said. “They won’t even get a 1½-year sentence.”
Other inmates must be brought back to court in Washington County from jails where they are boarded as far away as Somerset and York counties. That is a huge expense, said Smith.
Board of visitors member Dennis Higgins asked Smith why Washington County judges aren’t using a video arraignment system.
“That is not controlled by us,” Smith said. “That is controlled by the court system, and some judges absolutely refuse to use video.”
Higgins said a letter sent to a Washington County state representative appeared fruitless. “We are footing the bill,” he said. “We need to speak up.”
Smith said that many inmates who are looking at more than 365 days on their sentence and therefore would be transferred to a state facility, know how to work the system so that they stay in Washington County.
“I have one inmate who repeatedly breaks the television off the wall to stay here,” Smith said. A new county charge will keep the inmate in Machias, he said.
Last weekend, Smith said, two female inmates were transferred to York County and immediately began threatening suicide. “York County said come and get them. They didn’t want them there.” Smith was forced to take a deputy off patrol to retrieve the inmates.
Smith said the general inmate population is well-behaved and accepts responsibility for their crimes. “Most of them really believe they will never come back to jail,” he said. “Except that we are currently monitoring 101 sex offenders in the county, and every one of them claims innocence.
Board of visitors members Denise Altvater said there were many concerns regarding abuse in Washington County Jail in the past.
“In the six years that I have been on the board of visitors, there has been a big improvement in the feedback I get from clients,” board member Ann O’Brien said.
Altvater said that most of the problems inmates share with the board are legitimate. “And the inmates are always quite honest and positive,” she said.
Board member Betsy Jaegerman said the board is given free reign in the facility and she has discovered “a lot of openness, a lot of positivity. Even when the inmates share something negative, they seem to balance it with a positive.”