The Penobscot County Jail is pictured in this June 2021 photograph. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Maine Department of Corrections has issued a conditional license that will allow the Penobscot County Jail to continue operating while it works over the next 90 days to address overcrowding at the Bangor facility.

The county jail has negotiated new agreements with other Maine county jails that can accept Penobscot County inmates, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton has said he has longer-term plans to work with the judicial system on reducing the number of people in the jail awaiting trial, improving mental health services and continuing to speak with county commissioners about changes to create more space in the jail.

The conditional license stems from a Maine Department of Corrections inspection of the Bangor jail in early August. The department told jail officials that they needed to address overcrowding immediately, Morton said earlier this week.

The jail, which is licensed for 157 inmates, held 212 inmates that day, with 24 others boarded out to other facilities. The jail had until Saturday to deliver a plan to the state on how it would reduce the population, according to Morton.

Liberty said Friday he had met with Morton and County Commissioner Peter Baldacci the day before to discuss the county’s preliminary plan to address overcrowding.

Based on that plan, Liberty said he has faith change will come to Penobscot County despite this being the second instance of possible revocation of the jail’s license since Liberty took office in 2019.

After 90 days, a new conversation will take place to revisit the topic, Liberty said.

“I want to be able to assist them any way I can and ensure that not only the residents are safe, but the employees, too,” Liberty said. “Overcrowding creates an environment that can be difficult to manage. I’m most concerned about public safety and the safety of the employees at these facilities.”

Overcrowding at the Bangor jail has been ongoing for years, and county commissioners have considered a number of plans to expand the jail or build a new facility altogether.

The most recent such plan was a proposal that county commissioners endorsed early last year to demolish the former YMCA on Hammond Street and build an eight-story, 250-bed jail in its place at a cost of between $65 million and $70 million.

Commissioners, however, backed off of that plan after it was met with sharp criticism from Bangor city councilors, nearby residents and at least one member of the advisory board that twice recommended a new facility as the best solution to the aging and overcrowded jail.

Commissioners recently have taken steps to evaluate the old YMCA building as a place to relocate offices from the jail building down the street, freeing up space at that building for more cells. The Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office has also been working to reconfigure space in the jail.

In January 2020, Liberty declined to issue an occupancy permit to the Penobscot County Jail unless it kept the population at 157. The county has been working to address the issue since then.

So far, Penobscot County has increased the number of inmates it boards out, which Morton warned could soon cost the county $1 million annually.

Part of the plan laid out by the county includes new agreements with Androscoggin County and Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset to send inmates there, Morton said Wednesday.

Morton and Baldacci could not be reached for comment Friday.

Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...