Maine’s jail system — the first stop for the state’s accused drunk drivers, drug dealers, burglars and murderers — is a mess.

Just ask a sheriff or jail administrator.

“The system right now is in chaos,” said Mark Westrum, head of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset and chairman of the four-year-old Maine Board of Corrections. “We’re not in crisis but we’re getting there.”

Bringing the issue to a head: In May, Somerset County closed its jail to inmates from other counties, directly challenging the state’s jail network and leading to inmate transportation nightmares, overcrowding at some jails and empty beds at others.

A just-released study by the National Institute of Corrections found that Maine’s system is in trouble. The statute-created Board of Corrections has spent too little time on policies, planning and procedures, and lacks basic knowledge of its own authority, the 78-page report found.

It also found that conditions in the state’s 15 jails have failed to improve since they were stitched together by the Maine Legislature in 2008.

“County jails are not better off today than they were four years ago,” read the June 28 report.

And some, such as the Androscoggin County Jail, are worse and feeling the squeeze.

No vacancy

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins on July 12 alerted the state Department of Corrections that his jail’s population had surged to 165 inmates, exceeding its state limit of 160. Cells designed in the late 1980s to hold a single inmate now hold up to three at a time at the Auburn jail.

Desjardins searched for beds elsewhere in the system. Newer and bigger Maine jails all had empty beds. Yet, they told Desjardins they were full.

“We don’t have a shortage of beds in the county system,” Desjardins said. “We have a shortage of funding.”

When Desjardins called, the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, the York County Jail in Alfred and Two Bridges Regional Jail, which serves Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties, had undergone state-budgeted shutdowns of portions of their facilities to save money and were at the edge of their remaining capacity. The Somerset County Jail in Madison had shut down part of its jail on the orders of its sheriff.

The state allows him to house as many as 235 inmates in the jail, but he has shut down one of four sections, known as “pods.” On Friday he had about 110 inmates. They included about 75 people from his county and another 35 or so federal inmates. None were from other Maine counties.

“I’m looking out for my taxpayers” said Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong, who says the state has not paid money owed to the county, nor has it kept up with its costs. “The taxpayers of Somerset are getting totally screwed.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Creating a system

Jail consolidation began with former Gov. John Baldacci.

In August 2007, Baldacci proposed a full state takeover of the county jail system and the closure of four small jails, including those in Franklin and Oxford counties. State corrections officials argued that counties were spending too much money on jails and that the state could do better.

The counties pushed back.

Sheriffs, commissioners and legislators came up with an alternative plan that would stitch the county jails together into a network they called “One Maine, One System:”

• Three jails — Franklin, Oxford and Waldo — were reduced to 72-hour holding facilities.

• Others, such as the Cumberland County Jail and the new Somerset County Jail, became flagship jails, the go-to locations.

• Administered by a new Board of Corrections, the network would manage jail crowding through cooperation. Inmates would follow the available beds.

• Property tax levies for the jails in each county were capped at 2008 levels. New jail spending became the responsibility of the state.

The state promised $1 billion in savings to Maine property taxes over 20 years.

The new system kicked off on July 1, 2009.

Moving inmates

Most counties now say they have too little money. Unexpected costs keep popping up and the cooperation implied in the “One Maine, One System” slogan seems less attainable.

“I hate to be totally negative, but I’m not able to find any good points,” Franklin County Sheriff Dennis Pike said. “And that is disturbing.”

Sheriffs and administrators have learned to submit budgets to the state and to haggle through meetings of the Board of Corrections, which meets in an aging building once used by the Augusta Mental Health Institute.

Too often, meetings of the Board of Corrections are filled with issues like Pike’s. When Sheriff Delong closed his Madison jail to the system in May, it left Pike’s people searching.

With his Farmington jail remade as a 72-hour holding facility, Pike needed a place to send his inmates. At first, he began sending people to Two Bridges in Wiscasset, about two hours to the south. As that filled up, he began sending his people to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

And he’s not the only one.

In some cases, the closure caused inmates from the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton to be sent to empty beds at the York County Jail in Alfred, said Westrum, the Board of Corrections chairman. It’s a distance of 280 miles.

“The whole system is predicated on flagship jails,” Westrum said. “When one flagship jail lowers its flag, like Somerset did, it throws the whole system into absolute chaos.”

It has led Pike to believe that the network has failed.

“I believe the appropriate response would be to restore it to the way it worked for 150 years,” he said.

Facing a challenge

It’s too late to go back, Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte said this week.

The problems identified in the report — disorganization, lack of policy and authority by the Board of Corrections, and inappropriate standards for when a jail is considered full — can all be changed.

“I think it’s a new organization, a multimillion-dollar company, so to speak, that’s struggling to get its feet on the ground and establish itself,” said Ponte, who agreed with most of the findings of the National Institute of Corrections.

He opposes a state takeover of the jails like the one Baldacci envisioned — the politics would be too difficult — but more authority by the board may be needed, he said.

The fate of the Somerset County Jail and its role in the network will be a test, he said.

“Somerset is basically saying, ‘I don’t want to be part of the Board of Corrections. I don’t even want their money. [But] I’m not going to give you any beds and I’m not going to do this and I’m going to operate this way.’” Ponte said. “If they’re able to do that, then the next big jail or county that tries to do that . . . the system would be all but crippled.”

He added, “We cannot absorb another loss of 100 beds from the system. It should get resolved somehow. And if we fail to do that, then yeah, I think we’re in jeopardy.”

Westrum was uncertain whether the Board of Corrections has the authority to overrule the closure of the Somerset County Jail.

It doesn’t, Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong said Friday.

“If the state had that authority, they’d have already done it,” he said. “Thank God they don’t.”

Delong insisted that he doesn’t want to fight. He even believes the network can work if the state can be fair with counties over financing.

The state pays $22.50 per inmate per night for each inmate a jail must take from another county. He figures each inmate costs the county more than $200 per night.

He said he’s not looking for $200 per inmate, since having more people in his jail would lower those costs, but the $22.50 per inmate is too low.

“I’m right,” he said. “I know I’m right. The state knows I’m right. I’d be better off to shut my jail down.”

It could be remade as a community center and host potluck suppers, he joked.

Finding solutions

Westrum believes a compromise can be found.

On Tuesday, the Board of Corrections is scheduled to meet in Augusta and will likely take up the issue. They also will talk about the report.

Like Ponte, Westrum sees many of the problems as growing pains in a still-new system.

“Each sheriff is so used to running his own jail,” he said. “Big Brother stepping in didn’t come very easy for a lot of us, myself included.”

Westrum said he has trouble managing his work on the board and his role as administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail.

“I’m not the bed guru for the state of Maine,” he said. “I sometimes question when I have the time to do my own job, because it’s always some sort of chaos.”

Desjardins, too, believes the system can work. He has seen spending increase at his jail, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.

Since the system started, funding for Maine’s jails has increased by 20 percent, according to the report. In Androscoggin County, the local tax levy for the jail was capped at $4.2 million. This year, the budget is $5.8 million, an increase of $1.6 million, paid by the state.

“That’s an awful lot of money,” Desjardins said. But the gap isn’t as big as it seems. Traditional parts of the pre-2008 jail budget were taken out before the state set its cap. In effect, some expenses were switched over to the county.

Desjardins has had to reduce education at his jail and is threatened with having to lay off personnel if more money doesn’t come in.

“I have no choice,” he said.

How full is ‘full?’

One need is relief from overcrowding.

Across the system, capacity was at 90 percent in 2011, according to the report. On average, 1,667 of the jail system’s 1,848 beds were taken. However, most correctional experts consider 85 percent occupancy to be full.

The reason is that jails need space to accommodate a sudden increase in arrests or, more important, the flexibility to move inmates.

It’s called “functional capacity.” Desjardins compares it to a parent with three arguing children and only two bedrooms. When a jail nears its capacity, instances of suicide and assaults climb dramatically.

“You need someplace to separate them,” he said.

The jail network has no system to set functional capacity limits. Each sheriff and jail administrator set their own.

Both the Cumberland County Jail and Two Bridges Regional Jail have refused to fill every bed. In May, the last time Two Bridges’ population surged near its capacity, one of Westrum’s corrections officers was attacked from behind by an inmate and assaulted.

“He was bruised up pretty good,” Westrum said. Two other officers were hurt in the scuffle.

Westrum is adamant that he will not add inmates when he can help it. “I’m not going to put my officers in harm’s way.”

Commissioner Ponte said he agrees that such standards must be set, but he believes they can come later.

“While they’re absolutely right, now is not the time to be taking beds off the shelf,” he said. “We should work toward that, and I agree wholeheartedly that you can’t run jails at 100 percent capacity. It will not work.”

One partial fix might be found in the report.

It suggests loosening the 72-hour limit for the jails in Franklin and Oxford counties. Inmates needing less supervision could stay there longer, the report said.

Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant, a supporter of the network, agrees.

“We’ve got some jails that are busting at the seams, and then we’ve got others like mine,” he said. “I’ve got two people upstairs [in the jail] and I could hold 40-something.”

Desjardins also believes the Legislature, which funds the network, ought to understand what the jails are facing, something also highlighted in the report.

“We’re not good at asking for what we need,” Desjardins said.

And though he sympathizes with Delong in Somerset County, Desjardins thinks county leaders must take the lead in finding solutions — and not just shut their doors.

“At the end of the day, we need to be able to all work together,” Desjardins said. “As sheriffs, if we can’t do that and square this away, I’m afraid somebody else will. The state may come in or whatever, and we may not like what they provide us.”