HAMPDEN, Maine — The old Hampden Academy sat empty over the weekend except for a small crew who worked to clean out the building before it is turned over to the town.
Less than a mile away, the new Hampden Academy appeared to be waiting patiently for students to begin classes this fall.
The crew of 11 men and women laboring to clean out the old high school technically were prisoners of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department serving sentences for convictions of operating under the influence of intoxicants. They wore their own clothes, however, and were supervised by employees of RSU 22, of which Hampden is a part, as well as personnel from the Penobscot County Jail.
The men and women were taking part in the first offender OUI alternative sentencing program. The sheriff’s office holds the program four times a year, and it lasts 48 hours. It includes more than six hours of discussion about alcohol and substance abuse at night with licensed counselors, community service at a school and no contact with family or friends. The men and women sleep at the schools in separate rooms on cots.
Jail and school personnel along with offenders agreed last week that the program is beneficial to all.
“This really helps ease overcrowding at the jail,” Sgt. Laura Dolley-LeBreton said Saturday. “We don’t keep specific records, but I don’t believe a lot of people reoffend after this program. I’ve seen a few come back through but not many. I’d estimate recidivism is between 4 and 5 percent.”
This weekend’s program was the 90th run by Penobscot County, Dolley-LeBreton said. From 1989 through Dec. 31, 2011, a total of 3,255 people — 2,322 men and 933 women — have served their sentences this way. If all those people had been housed in the jail, it would have cost the county nearly $500,000.
The alternative sentencing program has a close relationship with RSU 22 and has been to Hampden Academy 26 times, many more times than it has been to any other school. Brewer High School has hosted the program 17 times. The program has been to Old Town High School six times and to Orono High School nine times.
In December, it will visit the Job Corps campus in Bangor for the first time, she said.
David Grenier, the former assistant principal at Hampden Academy, who was helping out over the weekend, estimated conservatively that over the years the work done by “prisoners” has saved the district $250,000.
“During one of the first times the program was here, they built an entire building for about $20,000,” he said Saturday. “We used it for 20 years instead of having to rent a portable classroom.”
Grenier said that he remembers more than one occasion when one of the offenders returned to Hampden Academy after the program ended to complete a project that could not be finished in a weekend.
“There are 10 hands instead of two,” Barry Batey, head of maintenance at the academy, said when asked what the benefits of the program were.
The mandatory penalty for an OUI conviction under Maine law is a $500 fine and a 90-day driver’s license suspension if the defendant’s blood alcohol level was between .08 and .14 percent.
A 48-hour mandatory jail sentence is added to those penalties when the defendant:
• Has a blood alcohol level of .15 percent or above.
• Exceeded the speed limit by 30 miles an hour or more.
• Eluded or attempted to elude an officer.
• Was operating a vehicle with a passenger under 21.
To qualify for the first offender alternative sentencing program, a defendant must plead guilty to an OUI charge, not have an extensive or violent criminal history, be healthy enough to move and lift furniture such as school desks and be able to paint. While defense attorneys and prosecutors may recommend that defendants participate, a judge decides whether a defendant spends 48 hours in a school performing community service or two days in the county jail, Dolley-LeBreton said.
Participants also must pay a $125 fee for the weekend above their fines to reimburse the sheriff’s department for its costs.
A Newport woman, who asked not to be identified, said she was arrested on Feb. 29 and learned of the program from her attorney. She said it was a better way to learn a lesson than spending 48 hours in jail.
“I’d rather be here working than sitting in the jail with the hardened criminals,” she said. “I’d also rather be here doing something for the community. A little hard work doesn’t hurt anybody.”
She said that the educational part of the program had been helpful.
“A lot of people come into the program thinking they’ll be hollered at,” she said. “But they don’t do that. They’re teaching you the right way to go on. They’re explaining things to you, explaining what to do different next time and talking to you on a level that’s not degrading.”
She said that the educational session also had given her and others the opportunity to talk openly about what circumstances led to their arrests.
“If you were in a cell with someone who committed some other crime, you might not get that,” she said.
The woman also said that being cut off from contact with family was difficult. Two family members died in the days before she was to begin serving her sentence.
“I’m missing two funerals this weekend,” she said. “Some of us are away from our families for the first time and the men here with small children have said this is the first time they haven’t been home to tuck them in at night. This is a punishment.”
Similar alternative sentencing programs are held in Androscoggin, Kennebec and York counties. Each program takes offenders from throughout the state, but most offenders are from the county that runs the program or an adjoining county, according to Dolley-LeBreton.