The Penobscot County Jail and Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office in Bangor are shown in 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Penobscot County will set aside nearly $1 million next year to cover the cost of sending inmates to other jails when there’s no space for them at the chronically overcrowded jail in Bangor.

County commissioners on Tuesday budgeted $950,000 for inmate boarding costs for the upcoming year. It was far less than the $1.6 million Sheriff Troy Morton requested, but it’s $300,000 more than the county is spending to board out inmates this year.

The increased boarding costs are the result of higher fees other Maine jails are charging to take in inmates, and a coming crackdown from the state Department of Corrections that would force the Penobscot County Jail to hold no more than the 157 inmates it’s licensed to hold.

The boarding fees other jails charge have increased dramatically since 2019, when the county spent $537,000 on boarding, Morton said.

At that time, Penobscot County had a contract with at least one jail to house inmates for $30 per day. But those fees have risen to between $65 and $85 per day this year, when the county expects to spend the $650,000 it budgeted on boarding costs.

“That’s the rate now,” Morton said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be next year.”

The sheriff pointed to staffing shortages at jails throughout the state, including in Bangor, as a reason for higher boarding fees, as jails will need to offer higher salaries to attract more applicants for corrections officer positions.

Commission Chairman Peter Baldacci of Bangor said he could not support a $1 million budget increase because it would raise the county tax rate. 

“We’ve cut this budget request and taken our chances that we won’t go over for the past few years,” said Morton, who warned early last year that boarding costs could reach $1 million.

“And we’ve been OK,” Baldacci countered. “I have a hard time swallowing $1 million extra.”

Commissioner Laura Sanborn of Alton supported Morton’s budget but said she was willing to compromise on a lesser amount. Commissioner Andre Cushing suggested the $950,000 to which commissioners agreed.

Another factor driving the increase in boarding fees is the coming crackdown by the Maine Department of Corrections on the number of inmates housed at the perpetually overcrowded and aging facility, which is licensed to hold 157 inmates.

In early 2020, the Maine Department of Corrections, which licenses county jails, told Morton he had to reduce the number of inmates to 157.

The COVID-19 pandemic then led to drastic reductions in inmate numbers around the state before they returned to more normal levels. This past summer, the Department of Corrections gave the Bangor jail 90 days to comply with or risk losing its occupancy license.

Morton said Tuesday, the department had extended its conditional license an additional 30 days into November.

“If not for COVID, the DOC would be saying, ‘Get those additional 30 [inmates] out of there,’” Morton said Tuesday.

The jail has generally had between 20 and 40 prisoners more than the 157 it is licensed to hold for the past six months or so. The overcrowding stems from a number of factors, including a backlog in criminal court cases that grew dramatically during the pandemic as courts largely shut down, a lack of inpatient mental health beds for inmates in need of treatment, and staffing shortages that other jails that limit their capacity to take in inmates from elsewhere.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said Tuesday that Penobscot County was given additional time to comply with the licensing requirement because of a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the Bangor jail.

“We gave them an extra 30 days in recognition of the challenges of placing inmates in other facilities when the jail is experiencing an outbreak,” he said.

That outbreak continues to affect jail operations, though Morton said he was hopeful it was abating. All tests came back negative in the most recent round of universal testing, he said.

As of Tuesday, there were 177 inmates housed in the jail with an additional 50 boarded out at other facilities. An additional 103 defendants are being supervised by Maine Pretrial Services, a private company.