In a “deja vu all over again” moment, the Penobscot County Jail Advisory Committee is expected to recommend that a new, 300-bed jail be built to replace the overcrowded and aging facility in Bangor at a cost of about $65 million.
That is the same recommendation the committee made to county commissioners last year and that commissioners endorsed unanimously.
But in January, after feedback from municipal leaders and the public caused commissioners to conclude that taxpayers would not support such an expensive facility, commissioners told the committee to come up with a proposal for a new or modified jail at the lower cost of $20 million-$30 million.
About three months later, a majority of committee members are expected to reject that idea again when they deliver their recommendation Tuesday, said Peter Baldacci, chairman of the Penobscot County Commission.
Commissioners have said they will ask voters in November to approve a bond issue so construction can begin next year. The $65 million cost of the 300-bed facility includes the estimated cost of remodeling the current jail into offices and tearing down the former YMCA building on Hammond Street to build a parking lot.
The jail has been overcrowded for more than a decade. The capacity of the current facility is 157, but with an average daily population of about 190 over the past year, inmates have been sleeping in rooms designed for high school equivalency diploma, literacy and parenting programs. Another 40 to 50 inmates are boarded at facilities in other counties, and between 70 and 85 participate in a pre-trial release program.
Sheriff Troy Morton also recently told commissioners that the jail is understaffed by eight people, a chronic problem at most of the state’s jails.
The Maine Department of Corrections is expected to inspect the jail in August, according to Baldacci. If the county does not have a plan in place to ease overcrowding, such as a new facility or an addition, the department will enforce the 157-inmate limit. That would dramatically increase the cost of boarding inmates at other facilities, he said.
The working concept for a new 300-bed facility is a four-story building with the first level containing a secure entrance, booking area, kitchen and beds for 48 inmates who are in the process of either being released or booked into the facility. Those areas would be larger than what’s needed for a 300-bed facility so that in 20 to 30 years, the county could add a 120-bed addition to the back of the proposed facility.
The other floors would function as “mini-jails,” with each floor having cells, recreation areas, rooms for programming and a control room for correctional officers. The second floor would house the medical clinic and 48 inmates with special needs. The third floor would house 192 male inmates, and the fourth floor would be a 60-bed unit for women.
Morton said the mini-jail concept would help corrections staff “achieve our mission of operating a safe and humane jail.”
While commissioners approved spending $75,000 out of reserve funds for a concept design for a 300-bed facility, they refused to appropriate an estimated $925,000 for final plans or an undisclosed amount for a concept design for a 150-bed addition.
Several advisory committee members said that staffing requirements — which would be higher with a 150-bed addition to the current jail than they would be at a new, standalone, 300-bed facility — factored into their decision on what size facility to support.
But for committee member Stephen Stanley, a state representative from Medway, the cost of repaying the bond money led him to support a 150-bed addition over a larger standalone facility.
“We need to be practical in what we can afford as a county,” he said. “Bigger and newer may look more attractive, but the affordability to the communities and the taxpayers in those communities should be the No. 1 priority.”
Rick Bronson, the town manager in Lincoln and a former Brewer fire chief, disagreed.
“My experience says when we undersize things it is much more costly to enlarge,” he said. “My real question comes at, how do we educate the voters to support any of these plans?”
Harry Sanborn of Alton is the only member of the current advisory committee who was involved in planning the 1985 addition to the current Penobscot County Jail.
“It was obsolete when we opened the doors,” he said at a February meeting. “I don’t want to be in that situation again.”
Sanborn said he supports a 300-bed facility in part because an analysis prepared for the county last year projected that doing nothing and continuing to board out inmates is projected to cost just $40,000 less than the larger standalone facility over the course of 30 years. Plus, he said, “the operational economies” of a 300-bed jail are advantageous.
“All inmates are housed in house,” said Sanborn, whose wife is County Commissioner Laura Sanborn. “The transportation costs [of moving inmates to other jails] go away. Support service areas are improved greatly.”
The most economical time to build is as soon as possible as construction costs rise, he said.
“The cost to build goes up about $3.5 million dollars each year if nothing is done,” he said.