June 01, 2020
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Penobscot County returns to drawing board after yanking plan for $65M downtown jail

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Penobscot County Jail

Everything but the most recent proposal for a new Penobscot County Jail appears to be on the table as county commissioners again go back to the drawing board on efforts to ease overcrowding that has gone on for years at the current jail.

Last week, Commissioner Peter Baldacci said the county would “take a pause in the process” of planning a new county jail after hearing criticism from the public about the proposal for an eight-story, 250-bed jail county officials introduced at a Bangor City Council workshop on Feb. 10. The 116,879-square-foot standalone jail on the site of the former Bangor YMCA, which the county owns, was estimated to cost between $65 million and $70 million.

The pause in planning also means that commissioners will put off asking voters to approve issuing bonds to fund the project from the June primary until the November election.

Courtesy of WBRC Architects
Courtesy of WBRC Architects
A rendering of the proposal for a new, eight-story Penobscot County Jail that would take the place of the former YMCA on Hammond Street. This view is looking up Hammond Street.

The county had sought a zoning change from the city due to the height and size of the proposed building. But the county withdrew that request after it became apparent the council would not approve it, Baldacci said Tuesday.

“Those plans were helpful at looking at how better services could be provided [in a new jail],” Baldacci said, “but that is no longer a viable option. We need to look at renovating or adding onto the current facility or moving to a different location.”

But a county committee put together to devise proposals for a new jail has soundly rejected those ideas twice — once last year and once in 2018. Several of that committee’s members spoke out Tuesday during a county commissioners’ meeting and expressed different opinions on what the next step should be.

John Rouleau, Old Town’s public works director, supported the design made public earlier this month.

“I think this is an elegant solution to a difficult problem,” he said. “My comment is, ‘Well done.’ This serves the purpose the committee outlined, which is to take care of our inmate population without marginalizing people by shoving it out on the edge of town.”

The cost per square foot of the proposed jail was less than the cost of a custom-built home in Maine, said Rouleau, a structural engineer.

Lincoln Town Manager Rick Bronson, who has lived on Ohio Street not far from the jail for 50 years, disagreed. He called the design “a concrete monolith.”

Bronson, speaking as a person who lives in the neighborhood and not as a town manager, suggested that the new jail be built on the former YMCA site, but that it be just three stories high. The county could acquire nearby rental properties to increase the lot size so the building would not be so tall.

“The campus here works, just spread out over a greater area,” he said. “I see the reasons you build here — because it’s close to the sheriff’s office and the courthouse [on Exchange Street]. I just don’t support that it’s eight stories high.”

Robert Frank, a civil engineer with WBRC in Bangor, the firm that designed the jail proposal, said the building was designed for maximum efficiency so just two or three more corrections officers would be needed to staff the new jail.

A three-story building would most likely require more staff, he said.

While the proposed building looked white in the computer-generated images presented to city councilors, the plan actually called for a brown brick building that would have matched the historic Penobscot County courthouse. It also would have been set 125 feet back from Hammond Street so that the courthouse, hidden by the old Y building for a century, would be visible from the intersection of Hammond and Ohio streets. Frank also said that the eight-story building would not have been visible from downtown.

Doug Dunbar, a graduate of the Penobscot County Adult Drug Court who was once incarcerated at the jail, suggested commissioners return to their original idea for the Y property, but in a new building. That plan called for housing female inmates and the intake center there but in a renovated Y building.

When the county bought the building for $825,000 in 2017, commissioners originally thought it could be renovated for those purposes but it turned out to be cheaper to demolish the former Y. Dunbar also suggested the current facility be renovated.

Dunbar and Larry Dansinger, a Bangor activist, have repeatedly urged commissioners to look at global solutions to reduce the jail population, such as bail reform that could lead to fewer people locked up because they can’t make bail and more treatment facilities for mental health and substance use disorder.

But county commissioners’ options are limited, Baldacci said. State law only allows counties to issue bonds for buildings, not for programming, he noted. He also said that the county can’t count on state funding to ease jail overcrowding.

Commissioners took no action Tuesday and will not meet next week. Baldacci said commissioners would discuss options before giving further direction for a new jail proposal to architects.

The current jail is licensed for 157 inmates, and the county’s jail population has regularly exceeded that number for more than a decade. On Tuesday, there were 73 inmates boarded out at other facilities. Between 90 and 100 have been released under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services.

Sheriff Troy Morton has predicted that the cost of boarding inmates soon will reach $1 million a year. 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.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this report contained the wrong job title for Robert Frank of WBRC Architects and Engineers.

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