BANGOR, Maine — The future of the state panel that oversees Maine’s county jails is uncertain, with three key departures, including its executive director, coming amid strong criticism of its operations by Gov. Paul LePage.
The departures from the State Board of Corrections essentially have “hogtied” the board, which no longer has enough members to hold a quorum, according to its chairman.
“I’m one of two still left [on the five-member board],” Chairman and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said. Carleton Barnes Jr. of Lisbon is the other remaining board member.
Amy Fowler, a Waldo County commissioner, resigned from the board effective Tuesday, Jan. 13. Mallory Pollard, a financial analyst, resigned in mid-December. The board’s executive director, Ryan Thornell, will leave Jan. 28.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” Thornell said, listing mounting jail funding problems, a lack of support from the governor and a fundamental flaw in the original 2008 law that created the Board of Corrections as his reasons for leaving.
In 2008, the Legislature put control of the jails with the board while freezing the amount taxpayers in each county would contribute to their operation. The state would pay the rest. The goal was to establish a coordinated, efficient correctional system with sound fiscal management. It hasn’t worked out that way, according to Thornell.
“The county jails have been funded at the same level for three to four years,” Thornell said. “Last year, we needed $1.2 million [in supplemental funding from the Legislature] and this year it’s going to take $2.5 million. Next year, it will be over $4 million and over $6 million the following year. I definitely think that plays a role [in the recent departures].”
The board will go before the Appropriations Committee to state its financial needs on Jan. 20, Thornell said.
On Tuesday, Gov. LePage told reporters he will not support more county jail funding.
“I will not take good taxpayer money and throw it after bad money,” LePage said. “I said it in 2011, and I’ll say it today: That system is made to fail. It cannot work the way it’s set up. You get the operators of the jails to make all the decisions, and then you send the bill to the governor. I’m telling you that’s not how you run a business. The person who makes the decisions has to have control of the checkbook.”
LePage said he thinks statements from jail officials that facilities are on the verge of being shut down because of financial problems are little more than scare tactics.
“They told me last year they were going to close down if I didn’t do something,” he said. “I said I’m not doing anything, and not a single one closed down. There’s some money there; they just need to dig deeper.
“As soon as the Legislature recognized that we should sit down and fix it, I’m right there to fix it,” he continued.
‘This cannot continue’
The remaining members of the panel still are dealing with rampant overcrowding and inmate transfer issues, as well. On Monday, the board held an emergency meeting, in which Merry, Fowler and Barnes voted to allow Franklin County Jail to house its own inmates again.
In 2008, Franklin County Jail in Farmington was changed into a 72-hour holding facility. It sends about 25 to 30 inmates daily to the Somerset County Jail. Once the Franklin County Jail again can house its own inmates, which is expected to happen in the next couple of months, more room will be available at Somerset County Jail in Madison.
Those openings will help to alleviate overcrowding at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility and Penobscot County Jail through jail transfers, Merry and Thornell said.
In an email to the state board, Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said his jail had 206 inmates but is only authorized to house 147.
“Not one correctional facility was willing to take any of our inmates, in spite of vacancies throughout the system,” he wrote.
“It is difficult not to begin to feel that either the Board of Corrections is unable to manage inmate movement within the system or unwilling to exercise its authority,” Liberty said. “Either way, there has been a sustained deliberate indifference as to the acute nature of our population issue. Each day we must plead with other facilities to take inmates with very poor results.”
The sheriff ended the email by writing, “This cannot continue.”
Penobscot County officials have made similar pleas for help with overcrowding.
Merry predicts an end to the Board of Corrections, in part because LePage has indicated his support of such a move and the governor’s office has not selected replacement board members.
“The board needed two additional people appointed by the governor’s office, and he has failed to make those appointments,” Merry said. “This has somewhat hamstrung the board.”
With Fowler’s departure, the remaining two members on the board do not form a quorum, he added, which means the board cannot make legally binding decisions.
“Some legislators have indicated they would like to see the law that created the Board of Corrections disappear,” Merry said. “Gov. LePage, in his swearing in speech last week, said the county jail system has been a failure.”
Yet counties with jail budget deficits this year — which include Penobscot County with a shortfall of around $350,000 and Aroostook County, which is around $700,000 in the hole — will see taxes rise next year if the Board of Corrections is dissolved, Merry said.