Penobscot County officials on Monday presented plans to the Bangor City Council for a new county jail that would stand eight stories tall, have 250 beds and cost $65 million to $70 million.
The 116,879-square-foot standalone building would be located on the site of the former YMCA on Hammond Street once that building, which the county bought in 2017 for $825,000, is demolished.
At eight stories, including the mechanicals, the Penobscot County Corrections Center would be one of the tallest buildings in Bangor, excluding church spires. The Hollywood Casino on Main Street and the Camden National Bank building on Exchange Street are each 10 stories high.
The plan presented to the council Monday evening is the latest plan from the county for a larger jail that would alleviate overcrowding at the current jail, which is licensed for 157 inmates, and reduce the need for the county to board inmates out to other county jails.
The newest plan would require a change in the traffic pattern around the proposed jail.
Court Street would be closed from Hammond Street to Bean Court, which abuts the back of the former YMCA parking lot.
Bean Court would be extended to Ohio Street, which will require the county to purchase at least two properties. Court Street from Hammond Street to Bean Court would become a walkway surrounded by green space.
To build the facility, the county would need some zoning changes or exceptions from the city because its proposed height and setbacks are not aligned with the current zoning code. The Bangor Planning Board also would have to approve the proposal.
Exactly when work on the new jail would begin was unclear Monday. Penobscot County expects to ask voters to approve issuing bonds to pay for the project in the June primary.
Exactly how much the county budget would increase once the jail is completed and the bond begins to be paid off is not known yet. The annual budget is expected to increase between $2 and $3 million depending on whether it is a 25- or 30-year bond and what the interest rates are.
In June 2019, county commissioners asked WBRC Architects and Engineers of Bangor to design a 250-bed jail estimated to cost $44.8 million after deciding that a 300-bed jail, at a cost of about $65 million, was too expensive.
But County Administrator Bill Collins said Monday that none of the architectural firms that bid on the project thought the YMCA could be demolished and a new jail built for less than $65 million and meet industry standards for security and programming.
The bottom floor would include a lobby, an office area for administration, a visitation room and the security section. The second floor would include laundry and food services while the third would house the intake area and an area to hold people waiting to be transferred to the courthouse for appearances.
The fourth floor would be a treatment facility for inmates dealing with substance use or mental health issues. Some people who are arrested and brought to the jail often go through drug withdrawal. Others are in a mental health crisis that led to their arrest.
“We’re going to be able to take the people who are coming in sick and provide the medical staff an adequate space in which they can work and treat them,” Collins said.
The fifth floor would house maximum-security inmates, and the top three would house low- and medium-security inmates who would be separated by gender.
The council’s role is limited to the requested zoning changes and the approval of rerouting Court Street to Ohio Street.
City Council Chairwoman Clare Davitt said after the work session that she has toured the jail.
“I see an incredible need there, but I also support alternative programs like the one District Attorney Marianne Lynch started for first-time shoplifting offenders and other alternative programs.”
Larry Dansinger of Bangor told councilors that he is part of a group that supports a new jail but one that is closer in size to the current facility.
“We need to think about how people feel about having the jail proposed as a downtown landmark,” he said.
Dansinger and others have urged commissioners to look at the jail as part of the current criminal justice reform movement and consider how it can be a part of a global solution that includes bail reform and other alternatives to incarceration.
The current jail is licensed by the Maine Department of Corrections to house 157 inmates but has been overcrowded for more than a decade. Sheriff Troy Morton said that the population recently has averaged about 175, with about 55 additional inmates boarded at other facilities and 100 living in the community on pretrial release under the supervision of Maine pretrial service.
Earlier this month, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told Morton the jail could no longer regularly exceed its rated capacity of 157. That means the jail has to board out more inmates than it did previously at a cost that could reach $1 million this year or next, the sheriff has said.
Last year, the county spent $537,625 to board Penobscot County Jail inmates at other facilities. County commissioners have budgeted $780,000 for boarding this year.
Collins said Friday that between inmates at the Penobscot County Jail and those boarded out, the county is responsible for nearly 250 inmates now.
Once a new 250-bed jail was completed, If more inmate capacity were needed after a new, 250-bed jail is built, more beds could be added within the facility.
The current Penobscot County Jail would be “repurposed” for use by other county departments, including the regional dispatch center located on the top floor of the historic Penobscot County Courthouse, according to Collins. The center needs more room because it is the largest dispatch center in the state.