MADISON, Maine - There have been stops and starts, threats to scrap the whole project and even a move by the state to take it over completely, but despite it all, on Oct. 15, the new Somerset County Jail will be open for business.
A tour of the facility Tuesday revealed a state-of-the art jail, complete with technology that will make it easier and safer for inmates and staff, and an overall facility that is as pleasant as a jail could possibly be. Calm colors, 17-foot floor-to-ceiling window walls, skylights and exercise areas are all designed for comfort.
Beyond the esthetics, the facility is designed for safety. Pods are color-coded, cameras can watch every inch of the jail, and a million-dollar control center can instantly shut any door in the $30 million facility.
“This is the most compact facility on the East Coast,” county commissioner Chairman Phil Roy said, as he led county employees, department heads and the media on a tour of the nearly completed jail.
“Thank God we built it when we did,” he added. “There are other facilities similar in size being built around the country but they are going to be considerably more expensive.”
Roy said the jail is “ahead of schedule and on budget. People said it couldn’ t be done in 15 months but look around you.”
As the tour proceeded, workers were busy putting in security systems, locks in doors and tiling some of the pod floors. The smell of fresh paint hung heavily in the air, and, outside, landscaping was in its final stages.
Roy said the new jail will be ready by Oct. 15 or sooner, and that means not only all the inmates at the current Skowhegan facility will be moved to the new Madison jail, but also the Somerset County Sheriff’ s Department will move into its new home inside the facility.
The tour included the pods, or secure dormitories, including the Special Management Unit, where the most dangerous inmates will be housed. Roy said the unit is the most heavily monitored and the most expensive to run.
Jail Administrator David Allen explained that in the general population areas, the inmate-to-guard ratio is 64-to-1, but in the SMU it is 11-to-1. “This is 24-7 supervision and it could be that an inmate is checked as often as once a minute,” Allen said.
“This unit may be expensive but overall it may save us the most money,” he said. “We are currently spending $105 a day for boarding these types of prisoners because we can’ t house them now. We’ ll be able to hold on to our high-risk inmates.” Inmates could be in SMU because of their criminal history, mental health issues or medication needs.
Boarding fees for females also will be saved, as one pod is dedicated as a 22-inmate women’ s wing and is completely segregated from the men, including the use of a 12-foot-tall solid fence around the outside exercise area.
The paint may be pretty and the lighting exceptional, but there is no getting away from the reality of jail. Each cell is only 7-feet-by-11-feet and contains a toilet, sink, bunk beds and a half wall around the toilet for privacy. All the plumbing is centralized so should an inmate attempt to sabotage the system by stuffing items in a toilet, water to the individual cell can be shut off.
In addition, all glass is unbreakable and cameras monitor every inch of the facility. The visiting room is no-contact only, with glass walls between visitors and inmates.
The medical unit is something the county never had, Roy said, and will consist of two full-time nurses, a full-time doctor who will also be on call, and an on-call psychiatrist.
“Mental health is the highest-rising cost center in any jail,” Allen said.
Yet, he added, some prisoners are trustworthy and the facility is set up so they can move through the jail — on their own — to visit the medical facility or programs.
The central control room is equipped with a million dollars in highly technical monitoring equipment, a place Allen calls “the brains of the whole facility,” and there is a library and an indoor recreation area for inclement weather. There is a video arraignment room, which also is expected to save the county mounting transportation costs.
The facility has its own modern kitchen — 10 times larger than the existing one — and laundry room, where trustworthy inmates will be allowed to work.
Allen said the county has hired 28 new reserve officers who now are undergoing training, and it can’ t be happening a moment too soon.
“I have no doubt our population will skyrocket this winter,” he said. “People will be in crisis. [Inmate numbers] always swell in winter anyway, but this year we will be expecting the worst.”
The new facility will allow for a totally different style of management from pure containment, Allen said. “That’ s the plan. We don’ t treat all prisoners alike. We deal with them one way if they act up and a completely different way if they behave.”
The Sheriff’ s Department has separate entrances and contains evidence and weapons’ lockers, an armory, conference and training rooms, a break room and weight room. There is a separate four-bay garage, outside generator and a massive storage tank to feed the facility’ s two furnaces, which will consume about 150 gallons of oil a day.