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We met in jail. One a volunteer, the other an inmate. Through our mutual support of sober living houses, we re-connected months later and eventually joined area residents in forming “No Penobscot County Jail Expansion.” The group favors a much improved facility, but opposes plans to increase capacity. Proven strategies exist to safely reduce the excessive number of people in custody. COVID-19 should make this reduction an urgent priority.
Mass incarceration during the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been a uniquely American and singularly disastrous experiment. Our nation’s propensity to severely punish, at the expense of solving problems, has profoundly harmed countless members of society—crime victims, the poor, individuals suffering from mental illness and people of color.
Even in Maine, which ranks low among states for individuals jailed and imprisoned, the rates have been alarming. Maine consistently incarcerates three times more people than Canada (per 100,000 residents), and nearly five times more than Norway. In fact, if Maine was a country, it would place in the top ten of the world’s 200 nations for the most people per capita behind bars. Since 1970, our jail population has increased more than 600 percent. This waste of public resources and human potential should deeply trouble us.
But it gets worse. Typically, 60-70 percent of jail inmates are in “pretrial” status. Convicted of nothing and entitled to the presumption of innocence, they languish while awaiting their day in court. Often charged with non-violent offenses and suffering from mental illness, many can’t go home solely because they’re poor.
With disregard for justice and equality, our legal system disproportionately punishes those in poverty by jailing them for weeks or months — causing their lives to unravel — while the wealthy and people of even modest means post bail and get released. Jails have become warehouses of our poor and sick.
They’re now facing something particularly menacing: a potential death sentence. Communicable diseases spread like wildfire in jails, prisons and other congregate housing settings where social distancing isn’t possible. It’s happening at Rikers Island Jail in New York, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and long-term care facilities across the country. Closer to home, outbreaks are underway at congregate housing locations in Augusta, Belfast and Scarborough.
Jails aren’t equipped for large-scale illnesses. An outbreak at Penobscot County Jail (PCJ) or other place of incarceration could be disastrous — with sickened employees and inmates transported to local hospitals, elevating the risk to the community at large. This frightening scenario is a real possibility, but swift action can diminish the likelihood of tragedy. Although limited steps have been taken at PCJ and other facilities, substantially more can be done.
The daily roster at PCJ continues to include numerous individuals held for low-level Class D and E offenses (misdemeanors). Another large group is jailed for technical violations of probation conditions — not new criminal charges. We urge Penobscot County District Attorney Marianne Lynch to work with urgency toward their release. Her counterparts throughout the state should do the same. They have tremendous power. It should be used as never before to bring about equitable treatment for the poor and ill — protecting them from unnecessary jail time.
Sheriff Troy Morton should likewise use his full authority to further bring down the inmate count at PCJ to a much safer level. At a minimum, no more than one person should occupy a cell. Sheriffs can issue furloughs and take other steps to make this happen. No Penobscot County Jail Expansion has shared resources with Sheriff Morton and offered to help his agency by lending a hand to those released.
Mass incarceration has been an enormous drain on tax dollars and a stain on the character of our state and nation. COVID-19 should force us to re-evaluate and reverse course. Let this be a moment of clarity when we came to our senses, focused on problem-solving and implemented desperately needed reforms aimed at greater safety, equality and justice for all.
Monique Gautreau is an educator and volunteer at the Penobscot County Jail. Doug Dunbar is a former deputy secretary of state and was an inmate at PCJ. Both are founders of No Penobscot County Jail Expansion.
Watch: Nirav Shah talks about the impact of coronavirus on rural Maine