For several years, Sheriff Troy Morton has warned that the cost of sending inmates to other jails due to persistent overcrowding at the Penobscot County Jail would reach $1 million annually.
This may be the year when that happens now that the Maine Department of Corrections has told county officials the Bangor jail must stop regularly exceeding the number of inmates it is licensed to hold — 157.
Last year, the county spent $537,625 in fees to board Penobscot County Jail inmates at other county jails even as the jail’s population regularly exceeded 157.
For this year, county commissioners budgeted $780,000, which does not include the cost of transporting inmates. But that amount might not be enough, with boarding fees running between $45 and $65 per day per inmate.
The Department of Corrections is holding the jail to its licensed capacity as the county develops a proposal for a new jail designed to eliminate the overcrowding problem in the long term.
In the short term, however, boarding costs are likely to rise.
Morton said last week that the number of inmates in the jail recently had averaged about 175. The county has boarded out about 55 inmates at other facilities, and nearly 100 are living in the community on pretrial release under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services.
The jail population swings dramatically, Morton said. Recently, there have been as few as 140 inmates at the jail with just 35 boarded out. At other times in recent years, there have been as many as 190 prisoners in the jail with nearly 60 boarded out.
While other county jails in Maine have had overcrowding, Penobscot County’s situation “has certainly been the most chronic,” said Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty. It has been overcrowded for more than a decade.
The crackdown took effect in January when Liberty declined to issue an occupancy permit to the Penobscot County Jail unless it kept the population at 157. The corrections department inspects county jails every two years to see if they are meeting the department’s Detention and Correctional Standards. If they aren’t, the department and the jails enter into an agreement outlining how the jails will meet the standards in the near future, the commissioner said.
To help Penobscot County find places to board out additional inmates, Liberty, the former Kennebec County sheriff, held a conference call with 10 sheriffs and Morton on Jan. 31. Liberty urged them to step up and take in more Penobscot County inmates.
Liberty also agreed to house prisoners at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and at the Maine State Prison in Warren at no cost to the county. Usually, pretrial prisoners only are transferred to state facilities if they are too violent, their safety is at risk or they need intensive mental health treatment.
“The goal is to help Penobscot County address this issue,” he said. “My role as commissioner was to advise the sheriffs of the grave nature of the overcrowding problem in the jail in Bangor. It is satisfying to see us all work together.”
With 548 vacant beds in Maine’s jail and prison systems, which includes jail pods closed in York and Cumberland counties due to staffing shortages, Liberty believes it is possible for Penobscot County to find room at other facilities once it has reached its capacity of 157.
But finding a facility that can take inmates is more complicated than it sounds, Morton said. Considerations include how soon the inmate has upcoming court dates, and medical or other appointments.
“It makes no sense to move someone we have to move back within the next few days for a court hearing or appointment,” he said. “We identified 23 inmates we thought could be moved but once we looked at what they had coming up, we found we could only transfer nine of them.”
Other considerations include an inmate’s classification, Morton said. A facility might be able to take four or five medium-security inmates but none classified as maximum security, a section where the Penobscot County Jail might need to ease overcrowding.
Co-defendants often must be placed in different facilities so they don’t have contact with each other before their cases are adjudicated. That can be difficult when there are six co-defendants unable to post bail who were part of an alleged drug distribution ring, the sheriff said.
As of Friday, Penobscot County was boarding out 81 inmates to different facilities. Seven were held at the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth, six were at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison, eight were in the Washington County Jail in Machias, nine were at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, two were at the Maine State Prison in Warren and 49 were at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.
While the financial costs of boarding out inmates is concerning, Morton said the human cost of moving inmates is more harmful.
“Just as they are settling in and adjusting to our facility, we have to move them and the process must start all over again,” he said. “They are farther away from family, friends, their lawyers and support from clergy and medical providers they may have been seeing. It’s frustrating.”