LePage calls jail summit as sheriffs warn of overcrowding, budget crisis

Posted April 28, 2013, at 6:50 a.m.
Last modified April 29, 2013, at 3:44 p.m.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross

LEWISTON, Maine — A budget crisis threatening to force the early release of convicted criminals, layoffs of jail guards and even the closure of some Maine jails is headed to the governor’s office.

Gov. Paul LePage said Saturday he is planning a summit this week with all 16 of Maine’s sheriffs to hear their concerns firsthand. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Augusta.

LePage is likely to hear stories of fear.

Top officials including sheriffs, jail administrators and the chairman of Maine’s Board of Corrections all say the 5-year-old state-run network is starving from lack of funding.

Several jails — including those in Androscoggin and York counties — will run out of money to pay their corrections officers by mid-May unless promised state funding comes through.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross worries about his staff and the inmates in his care. The Bangor jail has a 143 beds but sometimes houses as many as 180 inmates.

Since 2002, five inmates there have committed suicide and his staff has counted another 80 “serious attempts.”

“It’s dangerous,” Ross said. “And it’s getting worse.”

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins wrote the governor last week, telling him that unless a budgeted $184,000 arrives from the state, the 174-bed facility in Auburn will be forced to close.

“It’s just a terrible situation,” Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum said. “I guess I was naive, but I just didn’t think we’d be here.”

The immediate problem is funding for April, May and June.

The state’s 15 county jails were promised $2.4 million for this final quarter of the fiscal year. However, when the Board of Corrections meets May 7 to divide up the money, it will only have about $1.2 million to distribute.

LePage was briefed on the situation Friday by legal staff and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

Some action by the state might be lumped into discussions around last year’s budget deficit, LePage said.

“It’s about $30 million in the hole,” he said. “We’re going to have to go back and get that money, so we might as well add whatever we need for the jails.”

Without a state bailout, the situation is gloomy.

“We’re going to disappoint lots of people,” said Westrum, who also serves as the administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. He worries even more for 2014 and 2015. The board has been directed to flat-fund all 15 jails.

“It’s a bad card that we’ve been dealt by the state,” Westrum said.

The 2008 creation of the state’s jail network — promoted as “One Maine, One System” — was originally pitched as a state takeover of the jails.

Then-Gov. John Baldacci believed money could be saved by closing several jails and consolidating the rest. The state’s prison system also wanted access to county beds to ease crowding.

Complaints drew Baldacci and the Maine Legislature to create a compromise.

The county share of jail budgets would be frozen at 2008 levels, capping the use of property tax money on the jails. The remaining funding would come from the state.

“They made the counties an offer they couldn’t refuse,” said Rod Miller, a U.S. Justice Department corrections expert who has studied Maine’s jails for decades. At the request of the state Board of Corrections, he is studying staffing and capacities within the jails for the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

In 2008, Maine had a quality jail system.

“It wasn’t fat,” Miller said. “It was nothing opulent. It got the job done.”

In 2008, Mainers spent $73.7 million on jails. In 2009, funding rose by 2 percent to $75.2 million. In 2010, they were given a 2.6 percent hike and 2.4 percent the next year. The 2012 budget rose by 1 percent.

In 2013, spending crossed the $80 million mark with a rise of 0.6 percent.

“They put the jails in a box and the box is too small,” Miller said.

Sheriffs and jail administrators say the cuts ignore their rising costs, for everything from health care and food to expenses for officers’ pay and the shoes that they must wear.

And though no jails closed, those in Waldo, Franklin and Oxford counties became 72-hour holding facilities, forcing dramatic increases in transportation costs as those counties had to find room for their inmates in other jails. Bigger and newer jails, such as Two Bridges, Cumberland, York and Somerset, became regional centers.

In mid-2012 and again last month, Somerset county officials closed their jail to out-of-county inmates, saying the state was paying too little and forcing county taxpayers to subsidize the care of other county’s inmates.

The crowding elsewhere worsened.

“At any given time, I have about 100 inmates from other parts of Maine,” said Westrum, whose jail was built to serve Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties. Some of those inmates have come from as far away as the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton, 167 miles to the north.

That jail, too, is overcrowded.

“The system is broken,” Desjardins said. Though he set a ceiling of 144 inmates in his Auburn jail — beyond which it might not be safe — he had 157 on Friday. They had no place else to go.

Sheriff Ross in Bangor compared his job to running a hotel.

“We’re different than a hotel,” he said. “I can’t put a ‘No Vacancy’ sign on the door. We have to take what comes through our door. And we have to take the worst of the worst.”

However, to ease crowding, Penobscot and other counties are quietly using furloughs to release inmates before their sentences are up. State law permits jail administrators to release certain nonviolent criminals after one-third of their sentences are complete.

Some Board of Corrections members have encouraged more widespread use of the tactic.

In cases where there is oversight, it’s a good thing, Desjardins said. Organizations such as Volunteers of America and Maine Pretrial Services have contracts with inmates and a good record.

However, less structured releases are frightening, Westrum said.

“If we’re just opening the back door and saying, ‘OK. You’ve served a third of your time. Bye, bye. Behave and don’t get into trouble,’ That scares me,” Westrum said.

It scares Ross, too.

He believes something catastrophic could happen before aid to the jails arrives.

“It might be deaths, or improper release of inmates or people put out on a program that they really shouldn’t be out on because you’re just trying to get them out of your jail,” he said.

“The bottom line is that we have the system that the state of Maine promised to pay for,” Ross said. Lean budgets have already forced every jail to find available efficiencies and raid their capital funds to operate, he said.

Miller, who visited with officials from all over Maine in the past week, said he believes the jails are more dangerous today.

“We’re going to see people gut hurt and they’re probably going to be [jail] staff,” he said.

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