Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton speaks with county commissioners at a Dec. 4, 2018, meeting. Credit: Gabor Degre

The Penobscot County sheriff has reinstated a jail oversight committee after a former inmate pointed out that the panel wasn’t functioning in violation of state law.

Doug Dunbar, 52, of Hermon earlier this month pointed out to Sheriff Troy Morton and county commissioners that Penobscot County had no board of visitors for its jail.

Under a state law passed in 2003, each county with a jail is supposed to have a five-member board of visitors, made up of people from a variety of professions who regularly inspect the jail and make recommendations on how the facility can better serve inmates with mental illness.

While Penobscot County became the first county in the northern half of the state to have a board of visitors in 2007, it stopped functioning at some point after that. County officials could not explain when or why the board disbanded.

“The more eyes and ears and evaluators there are within the facility, the better,” said Dunbar, who spent 10 weeks in the Penobscot County Jail in Bangor on a drunken driving charge in late 2017. “Members of the Board of Visitors are required to spend meaningful time visiting the jail, talking with staff, meeting with inmates and looking at policies, especially those about the treatment of people with a mental health diagnosis.”

Recently, Morton appointed the people who had been serving on the county’s Jail Diversion Committee to the newly formed Board of Visitors. The diversion committee was created in 2004 by Morton’s predecessor, Sheriff Glenn Ross, to address overcrowding and the need for improved mental health services at the jail.

Morton, who refused to provide the names of those on the committee, said last week that the jail diversion group has effectively functioned for many years as a visitors’ board, meeting monthly.

“They were involved in development of new programs and [have had an] impact on some jail policies,” Morton said.

The group also played a role in discussions about the implementation of medication-assisted treatment for inmates with addiction, a change in the time of day when inmates are released and providing medications to inmates upon release.

“The jail diversion group was extremely beneficial to our facility,” Morton said. “This allowed us to meet regularly and discuss the use of outside resources to help those incarcerated. It provided an opportunity to meet with lawmakers, educate the public and bring resources together. Having a committee, allowed for many to see the true challenges we face.”

The two committees may deal with some of the same concerns, Dunbar said, but they have different functions.

Ross first appointed community members to the Board of Visitors in 2007, and made the names of those he appointed public. They came from the fields of business, health care, corrections and the ministry.

“We tend to view things as police officers and don’t always see possible solutions from other angles,” Ross, who retired in 2014, told the BDN 12 years ago.

The Maine Department of Corrections has a similar requirement that each state prison have a board of visitors appointed by the governor. However, with some exceptions, those boards regularly went months without meeting and were short on members between 2007 and 2017, the BDN reported two years ago.

Among county jails, the Penobscot County Jail was not the only one functioning without a board of visitors. The jails in Piscataquis and Androscoggin counties, for example, are in the process of finding people to serve on a board, according to their administrators.

The jails in Oxford and Waldo counties do not have boards of visitors because they no longer function as traditional county jails.

Meanwhile, jails in two of the state’s most populous counties, York and Cumberland, have boards of visitors.

The board for the Cumberland County Jail in Portland has a local church leader, a religious jail volunteer, an attorney, a violence intervention program coordinator, a former legislator, a police chief, a health care provider, a banker and a disability risk management business owner, Sheriff Kevin Joyce said.

Its focus is public safety and security.

“This includes jail staff safety as well as inmate health and safety,” he said. “It is my intent to utilize the feedback, and ideas brought forth by the Board of Visitors as means to make the Cumberland County Jail a more effective and efficient facility. The board also is providing the jail command staff and myself with information on what the citizens expect from the Cumberland County Jail.”

Not every sheriff responded to an inquiry about boards of visitors at county jails, so it is unclear how many jails currently have functioning boards.

In 2017, the BDN reported, four of the state’s 15 county jails had functioning boards of visitors.