BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross and his staff scrambled Thursday afternoon to find beds for 24 inmates who have to be moved to other jails around the state before an exception to the number of people who may be housed at the Penobscot County Jail expires Saturday.
Ross said late Thursday that 13 inmates had been moved to the Somerset County Jail in Madison earlier in the day and four had been moved to the Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft the previous day. Another seven were scheduled to be transported to the Somerset County facility Friday.
“We’re moving some maximum-security prisoners, some females and some special management inmates, but none with acute medical issues or who would be considered problem inmates,” Ross said earlier this week.
Special management inmates are those who might have a problem with another inmate or be forbidden by the court from having contact with someone who might be a codefendant or a witness, Ross said.
All the inmates who were being moved are serving their sentences rather than awaiting trial.
The Bangor jail was built in the 1800s to hold 50 inmates. An addition, completed in 1988, expanded capacity to 136 inmates.
But by 2000, the jail was bursting at the seams, with inmates sleeping on cots outside of cells.
The state Department of Corrections in 2006 granted the jail a two-year population variance that allowed it to increase the number of inmates it could house to 182, according to Ross. It was renewed for two more years.
Since the county jails were consolidated last year under the state Board of Corrections, they legally no longer are independent entities. As long as there is room in other jails around the state, no jail can be granted a variance, Ross said.
“Matching the classification of a Penobscot County inmate with an open bed space in another facility was time-consuming,” the sheriff said Thursday. “We expect it to get easier as we go along.”
The total number of jail beds in Maine is 1,844, Kate Snyder, who works for the Board of Corrections, said Thursday. While the occupancy changes from day to day, the population on Dec. 14 was 1,595.
“The system typically swings between 1,600 to 1,700 beds per day,” she said.
The population reduction will not affect the number of employees at the jail, Penobscot County Administrator William Collins said earlier this month.
“We will need the same number of staff as we had when we could house 182 inmates,” he said. “No one will be laid off.”
The Penobscot and Kennebec county jails were the only two in the state with population variances, according to Robert Devlin, administrator for Kennebec County. The variance for the Augusta jail allowed it to house about 180 inmates. As of Saturday, it will to have move inmates when the population reaches more than 147, he said.
For Penobscot County, the loss of the variance means that when the jail population exceeds 143 inmates, Ross and his staff must move them to facilities that have not reached their capacities, the sheriff said. When the jail capacity at the Penobscot County facility falls below 143, inmates will be moved back.
The DOC recently approved the jail for that number of inmates due, in part, to improvements that were made in 2006 and the hiring of additional staff that same year to meet the requirements of the variance. The total cost was about $300,000, Collins said.
“Most of that was for the salaries and benefits of the eight jail employees we were required to hire to obtain the variance,” he said.
Ross said earlier this month that the decrease in population at the Penobscot County Jail would be good for the remaining inmates overall, but moving inmates most likely would increase transportation costs dramatically.
“When the population is at capacity, you can feel the tension in the place,” he said. “It’s just too many people for the space. It also can be a hardship on the families of inmates when they have to travel outside the county for visits.”
How much it will cost to move inmates around is not known, Ross said, but the jail most likely will need to seriously consider buying a larger-sized vehicle to improve efficiency.
“Now we can only fit nine to 11 people, including staff, into our van,” he said. We’d like to be able to move 20 inmates at a time.”
Penobscot County’s contribution to the cost of running the jail is capped at $5.9 million, according to Collins. The jail budget for fiscal year 2011, which ends June 30, 2011, is $7.3 million.
Penobscot County Commissioner Peter Baldacci of Bangor said Thursday the moving of inmates will not save the county any money because the jail will have to keep the same number of employees. Under the new consolidated system, he pointed out, the jail may not be charged boarding fees by other facilities.
“It would have been more costly to board prisoners for $100 a day under the old system if we had lost the variance,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Davis of Kenduskeag said the increased cost of moving inmates around ultimately would fall on the residents of Penobscot County, even if it does not increase the county budget.
“I don’t care if people are paying taxes to the state, the county or the municipalities, it’s coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets,” he said Thursday
One of the people looking forward to having fewer inmates at the jail is Timothy Hastey, 46, of Glenburn. The last time Hastey was incarcerated at the Penobscot County Jail, 10 years ago, he was not in a cell. Hastey, who then was serving a 45-day sentence for driving violations, slept on a cot in the day room of Cell Block C.
“Later, they moved us to a classroom and there were 15 of us stuffed right in there,” he said earlier this month.
Hastey is back in jail serving a six-month sentence for operating a vehicle after having had his driver’s license revoked for being a habitual offender. Now he is an inmate helper, able to leave the facility on a work crew and live in a cell with a double bunk, but without a roommate.
Ten years ago, the jail regularly was 70 inmates over capacity, according to previously published reports.
“This is much better,” Hastey, who is due to be released on Jan. 17, said earlier this month of his current accommodations at the jail.