The Penobscot County jail needs more space. Modified about a decade ago to accommodate more inmates, the jail has a capacity of 157 people, according to the state. But last year, its average daily population was 192 inmates.
The overcrowding means increased stress for staff and inmates, many of whom don’t get the treatment and rehabilitation they need.
The county has an opportunity to ease overcrowding at the jail in downtown Bangor and improve its offerings by acquiring the former YMCA building just up Hammond Street from the jail. If acquired by the county, this space would be used to house female inmates, in addition to the jail’s intake area and short-term holding cells.
This would have many benefits, according to Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton. There has been a large increase in the number of female inmates at the jail, which Morton attributes to Maine’s growing substance use problems. Many of the women are serving time for theft.
The jail has tried to create separate spaces for women, but a new facility tailored for them will make such everyday activities as showering easier. In addition, the jail will be better able to offer programming for female and male inmates, if it has more space to do so.
There are many reasons for jail crowding in Maine. It’s crucial that policymakers at the state and local levels continue to address them. In some Maine jails, more than three-quarters of inmates haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re awaiting trial, and many can’t post the required bail that would allow them to remain free. Last year, 69 percent of the Penobscot County jail’s inmates fit this category.
Lawmakers last year did approve changes to the state’s pre-trial system, with the aim of keeping low-level offenders out of jail, but it will take time for them to be fully implemented.
With a shortage of beds in mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities, jails have become de-facto holding cells for people who would be better served in hospitals or treatment centers.
A 2012 review by the Government Accountability Office found that overcrowding in prisons led to increased prisoner misconduct and more lockdowns. These incidents put prison staff and inmates at risk. In addition, prisoners had increasing waits to participate in programming, such as continuing education and life skills classes.
The Penobscot County jail has undertaken several efforts to reduce its population. For example, no- and low-risk offenders — often people who are sentenced to brief jail stays for traffic violations, such as operating under the influence — are allowed to perform community service for a week or two rather than spend time in the jail. Such programs should be expanded.
But even with such efforts, the jails population continues to climb.
At the same time, the state has reduced it support for county jails. A corrections board that was meant to coordinate the work of county jails and state corrections facilities fell apart. State funding for jails has stagnated. Under a formula agreed upon by county and state officials, the state share of jail expenses was $14.6 million per year. The governor has included only $12.2 million for jails for each year in his two-year budget proposal. The Appropriations Committee voted against adding the additional funds to support the jails to the supplemental budget lawmakers approved last week. That leaves a $471,000 shortfall for the Penobscot County jail for the current year.
The YMCA space meets many of the county’s needs. County commissioners are pursuing purchase of the building, but the bank that holds the mortgage has not accepted the county’s offer. The commissioners are pursuing eminent domain to acquire the property. A public hearing on this plan is scheduled for 9 a.m. on March 21.
We are not fans of government using eminent domain and encourage the parties to continue to work toward a solution because this space is an important piece of the county’s plans to make needed improvements to its jail at minimal expense.