Police found the red pickup truck more than 100 miles from where it had been reported stolen. It was sitting on the frozen surface of Millinocket Lake in northern Penobscot County, 100 feet from the shoreline, its tank out of gas, a state trooper wrote in his police report. Inside the cab, 26-year-old Ashley Garboski was curled into a fetal position in the driver’s seat, asleep.
Her father, Frank Garboski, had been worried about his daughter, who lived with him and his wife in Belgrade. In the days before the truck went missing, on Feb. 24, Ashley had behaved oddly, he said, making “off-the-wall” remarks. Once, she pointed at the sky and asked her father what it meant, he said.
An officer brought Ashley to the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor on Feb. 25 and booked her on charges of theft and driving on a suspended license. A judge released her two days later on the condition that she stay at her parents’ house and check in daily with a caseworker at Maine Pretrial Services, which supervises defendants who aren’t dangerous, so they don’t have to sit in jail while their case awaits trial.
But a week later, police arrested Ashley again for not following her bail conditions, which had confused her, she later said. This time, the court set her bail at $500 cash, which she doesn’t have.
More than two months later, she is still in jail.
Between 1995 and 2005, the average daily population in Maine jails nearly doubled. That growth was driven not by a sharp increase in people serving sentences for crimes but an increase in the number of prisoners like Ashley who were being held prior to their conviction. Since 2005, the average daily population rose as high as 1,800 inmates statewide in 2014 and has hovered around 1,660 for the last two years. The percentage of prisoners held before their conviction has continued to rise.
In 1993, only 40 percent of inmates in Maine jails were being detained before their conviction. Because a judge hasn’t ruled on their cases, they are referred to as “pretrial” inmates. Now, between 60 and 80 percent of inmates are pretrial, depending on the county.
The trend represents a transformation in the role of county jails. Today, they aren’t just locking up people who are dangerous. They are also holding many people accused of minor crimes and violations before they’ve had their day in court.
Detaining low-level and non-violent offenders, even for just a few days, has dubious public safety benefits and punishing human and financial costs, according to numerous studies. An unplanned trip to jail can imperil a person’s employment, health, housing and ability to provide childcare, according to interviews with formerly incarcerated defendants and a summary of research examining the effects of pretrial detention.
It can also separate people from their families, jeopardize their public benefits and pressure defendants to plead guilty as a faster way to resolve their case, two studies found by examining how pretrial detention affects convictions and sentencing.
That fallout isn’t always in exchange for making communities safer, according to research showing that just a few days behind bars can make people more likely to re-offend.
“‘Legal’ and ‘just’ are two different things. This is not just,” said Tina Nadeau, executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “We’re dealing with human beings here, and we need to be more thoughtful.”
Yet minor cases constitute the bulk of defendants coming and going from Maine jails, creating a constant turnover of defendants who can’t immediately post bail. That turnover feeds into a more static population of defendants who are sitting in jail for longer, usually because their charges are more severe or because, like Ashley, they allegedly failed to comply with their bail conditions. About 70 percent of those inmates are dealing with either a mental illness, substance use disorder or both.
These trends suggest that detention can be as much a sign of poverty, or other forms of distress, as potential wrongdoing. It’s why multiple studies have called a national spike in rural pretrial detention another symptom of the economic misfortune and public health crises plaguing communities in rural America.
Ashley had struggled with her mental and emotional health ever since she left an abusive relationship in high school, according to her father. She had trouble staying focused enough to hold down jobs and could lash out at her parents when they tried to get her to open up to them, Frank said. Twice in the past, police had brought Ashley to the hospital to undergo psychiatric care because she grew upset and combative, and indicated that she might hurt herself or others, her father said.
“There are just some things going on here that we don’t know how to deal with,” said Frank, a property manager and handyman. Though she lives with her parents, she has always been independent, he said, going for long drives that have put upwards of 40,000 miles on her dad’s car over the course of a year.
In the weeks before she was arrested, Frank noticed that something was troubling his oldest daughter. Her words became hard to follow, he said, and she started making obscure hand motions, like raising her pinkie finger at her dad as if the gesture had meaning. In response to questions from the Bangor Daily News that Ashley wrote from her jail cell, she said that “something came over [her] after seeing the blue moon around Valentines day and howling at it.”
Then a red truck went missing from a local restaurant, and police arrested Ashley.
It’s estimated that about 40,000 Maine people a year are in custody at some point before their case is over, according to a forthcoming report on pretrial detention from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The number isn’t formally tracked by the state, as is the case with many other statistics.
The organization found that the top five categories of alleged crimes were all fairly minor, after it compiled booking data for seven counties in 2017. The largest category of offense, which constituted 51 percent of offenses, were to public order and administration. One of the leading offenses was missing a court date.
The remaining bookings were for major driving offenses (21 percent), assaults (12 percent), thefts (9 percent) and drugs (8 percent). Some people were in jail because they owed debts, the organization found, noting that Maine courts issued more than 25,000 arrest warrants for people in 2015 because they hadn’t paid fines.
The trends mirrored what a study of five Maine county jails, prepared by the judiciary branch for a state task force in 2015, found in a review of booking data during the month of April that year. The top five criminal charges were all misdemeanors, although the second most common was for domestic violence assault.
Most people are released in fewer than two days, the study found, seeming to reflect the minor nature of most charges or that most defendants didn’t pose the kind of danger that warranted locking them away before a conviction. That was initially the case for Ashley, who was released two days following her arrest on Millinocket Lake. Though she was facing a more serious Class C felony theft charge, defendants aren’t supposed to he held before they’ve been convicted unless they are dangerous or a flight risk, according to state law.
What sent her back to jail was a bail violation, the most common charge found among offenders in the 2015 study. Her bail conditions instructed her to live with her parents and call Maine Pretrial Services daily, but, instead, she went to the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and neglected to check in, her caseworker said.
Frank didn’t find out for more than a week after his daughter was arrested that she was, in fact, supposed to be living with him as a condition of her bail. On March 7 he received a call from a Maine Pretrial Services caseworker looking for Ashley, and he said she’d been calling him every day from the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, just a half mile from the jail and across the street from the city’s police station.
“I was under a lot of stress and needed to get away from everything going around me,” Ashley wrote to the BDN. But she said she didn’t really understand what she had done wrong when a police officer interrupted her while washing dishes at the shelter and brought her back to jail. Her court-appointed lawyer, Chris Uphouse, also said his client told him that she hadn’t understood her bail conditions and was confused. She’d never been incarcerated before, he said.
The next day, on March 8, a judge re-set Ashley’s bail at $500, which has kept her in jail ever since.
It costs about $100 a day, on average, to incarcerate someone in jail, meaning Ashley’s jailing has likely cost taxpayers upward of $6,000 as of early May.
The ACLU of Maine calculated that Maine jails, which are mostly funded by local property taxes, spend more than $3,000 on the average misdemeanor offender. That figure increases when people sit longer on more severe charges, climbing to $8,500 for Class C felony offenses. These costs add up, locking the sheriffs who oversee county jails in an annual struggle for more funding from the Maine Legislature to help them accommodate today’s level of local incarceration.
Experts who have examined a national rise in pretrial detention say that rural counties, like those in Maine, are likely seeing a sharper increase because they have fewer resources to process cases quickly, such as by hiring more judges and prosecutors, increasing access to defense counsel and holding court more often. They tend to be poorer and more starved for ways to address the social, economic and public health issues, like the opioid epidemic, that push people into the criminal justice system, said Marc Levin, who researched the issue for the Texas Public Policy Institute.
One of the loudest voices on the issue of overcrowding is Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton, whose jail is so chronically short of beds that the county spends about $800,000 a year to board inmates elsewhere. Some inmates have to sleep on cots in a former classroom. County commissioners have proposed easing the overcrowding by doubling the size of the 157-bed jail, at a cost that could exceed $65 million.
Life inside the Penobscot County Jail is isolating and grim. But Ashley’s parents are too worried to bail out their daughter, not knowing where she would go or if she would find treatment for her mental health. It has been a terrible, “no win” situation for them, Frank said.
He and his wife, Barbra, have twice made the two-hour round-trip drive to visit their daughter in jail. During their first visit, Ashley’s mental state had not improved, Frank said, and she made comments about “knowing” that people from her life in Belgrade were on the other side of the off-white, visitation room walls. Ashley wrote to the BDN that she believed her ex-boyfriend was there, though her father said he was in prison.
The second time, in mid-April, they arrived only to be turned away because Ashley was in quarantine due to a suspected lice outbreak. Soon after, her birthday passed, and she turned 27.
The next steps of Ashely’s case are in limbo, as she awaits the results of a mental evaluation that will determine if she is competent enough to stand trial. Her father isn’t sure if his daughter has received a specific diagnosis in the past because she kept her personal information private, he said.
The slow process could help in her legal defense, but it has had the unfortunate consequence of prolonging her case. It’s time that she endures behind bars, despite Uphouse’s attempt to transfer her to the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, he said. It means that because of how the criminal justice system works, her poverty and mental health have prolonged her loss of liberty before being convicted of a crime.
“It is disconcerting to our office as well that this just takes so long,” said assistant district attorney R. Christopher Almy, who is prosecuting the case. “People like Ashley should not be confined for long periods in jail.”
He called her situation “a quandary” because he doesn’t believe Ashley belongs in jail, but he fears she may be homeless or less safe if she is released, noting that she’d already violated her bail once. He would be more comfortable if there were a psychiatric facility for her to go to, he said.
“The system is flawed,” Uphouse said, adding that, “As a society, we don’t invest resources in addressing the problems that are underlying all these issues” that get people caught in the justice system.
Meanwhile, Ashley has been keeping herself busy, she said — playing cards and watching the limited channels that come through on the TV by her cell. But research suggests that the trauma of being in jail takes a severe psychological toll and can worsen the condition of those already struggling with a mental illness. Prisoners with mental illness are more likely to break jail rules and end up being punished or in isolation.
“My thought’s (sic) get to me but I sing, dance, read to try and keep myself sane. I hear a lot and see a lot of things others don’t,” she wrote. She believes in ghosts, she said.
“Commissary would be nice,” she continued, “But I don’t think I’ll be here at PCJ much longer.”
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Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.