SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong has announced that he’ll close a portion of the 2-year-old county jail July 1 unless the State Board of Corrections allocates $475,000 for the fiscal year 2011 budget.
Delong, in an undated letter to the Board of Corrections which was sent to news organizations on Thursday, said the county has “no decision” other than to close a 64-bed unit that houses minimum- and medium-security prisoners, most of whom are from outside Somerset County. In order to close the unit and reduce the jail’s population below 132 inmates, Delong wrote that Somerset County “will no longer be accepting boarders from any other county or state agency.” Those agencies need to find other facilities to house their inmates, wrote Delong.
Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan opened in August 2008, but the county didn’t use one of the four units until earlier this year when it began to accept outside prisoners. With the county in the midst of trying to pass a 2011 budget by June 30, the Board of Corrections has not committed to how much it will contribute, accord-ing to Delong.
“They were supposed to make adjustments and help us get this program on the ground,” said Delong during a telephone interview Thursday evening. “They’ve had months and months and I’m not on the ground. I’m just telling them that the taxpayers of Somerset County are not going to pay their bills.”
Neale Duffett, chairman of the Board of Corrections, did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday evening. State Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and state Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, who co-chair the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, could not be reached for comment.
The Board of Corrections, which was formed in 2007 by the Legislature, was charged with overseeing an overhaul of the prison and county jail system in Maine in which the state essentially took over administration of county jails. Among the board’s responsibilities is determining county jails’ budgets and contributing part of the cost. According to Delong, the dispute involves $900,000 in surplus in the 2010 jail budget.
“The state wants to tax the taxpayers of Somerset County almost $500,000 more than they should,” said Delong. “I was elected by the people to do what’s best for them. My attitude is that I’ll house Somerset County’s inmates, period. I’m done with their games.”
Asked whether threatening to close the unit is a power play to force the state’s hand, Delong acknowledged that it is and that he doesn’t know what the Board of Corrections’ reaction will be.
“We’re going to find out,” he said. “I opened my doors to them several months ago and tried to work with them. I get promises but nothing else.”
Delong said closing the unit will not result in any employees losing their jobs because the jail is operating with several vacancies.