The Penobscot County Jail and Penobscot County Sheriff's Office in Bangor are shown Nov. 14. Credit: Gabor Degre

Penobscot County commissioners want to build a new 300-bed county jail in the parking lot behind the current facility on Hammond Street in Bangor, a project that would cost $65 million to $70 million.

The preference for a new jail marks a change from the county’s original plans to expand the overcrowded, 157-bed Penobscot County Jail by renovating the former YMCA building just up the hill to house female inmates and the jail’s intake operations.

Now, county officials say, the plan is to tear down that 50,000-square-foot building, which the county bought last year for $825,000, to make way for a parking lot, as the new jail would occupy the parking lot behind the current jail. The county would renovate the current jail to house some Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office operations and other county offices. And the county would build the new jail so it could be expanded in two to three decades.

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Commissioners agreed last month to go forward with a plan to build a new facility rather than continue spending an average of $700,000 per year to board inmates at other facilities or build an addition to the current facility.

They had hoped to seek voter approval for the project in June 2019 but decided Tuesday “to slow the process down” when they learned the cost for building plans would be “substantial” and the county would have to bear the cost of holding the election, Chairman Peter Baldacci said.

Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik

Baldacci declined to say how much a local architectural firm wanted to charge to prepare building plans for the county. The county would have to pay for the election if no state referendum questions are on the June ballot, and none so far is slated for that month. A primary election is not scheduled until June 2020.

“It is a significant investment,” Baldacci said of the cost of a new jail. “Doing nothing would cost us more in the long term, and expanding and renovating does not make sense operationally. In addition, the standard for corrections facilities is far higher than for other kinds of buildings.”

He said commissioners want to meet again with members of an ad hoc advisory committee who have been meeting for more than a year to consider options for reducing the estimated cost.

“We want to put forward the best plan that will have the least impact on taxpayers,” he said.

Overcrowding has plagued the current facility for more than a decade. The capacity of the current facility is 157, but with an average daily population of about 190 over the past year, inmates have been sleeping in rooms designed for high school equivalency diploma, literacy and parenting programs. Another 40 to 50 inmates are boarded at facilities in other counties.

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The working concept for the new facility is a four-story building with the first level containing a secure entrance, booking area, kitchen and beds for 48 inmates who are in the process of either being released or booked into the facility. Those areas would be larger than what’s needed for a 300-bed facility so that in 20 to 30 years, the county could add a 120-bed addition to the back of the proposed facility without impacting the infrastructure.

The other floors would function as “mini-jails,” Baldacci said, with each floor having cells, recreation areas, rooms for programming and a control room for correctional officers. The second floor would house the medical clinic and 48 inmates with special needs. The third floor would house 192 male inmates, and the fourth floor would be a 60-bed unit for women.

Sheriff Troy Morton said the mini-jail concept would help corrections staff “achieve our mission of operating a safe and humane jail.”

“In order to provide safety for the public, continue the regional booking model and provide accurate space for services, we must move toward the mini-jail concept,” he said. “The pressure put on correctional officers, our service providers and those incarcerated has been tremendous.”

Credit: Nick Sambides Jr.

Because the new jail would be built on a hill that is 80 to 90 feet below street level, only the top floor of the facility would be visible from Hammond and Court streets. County employees would use the new parking lot during the day, and the lot would be available to the public after 5 p.m. and on weekends, Baldacci said.

Originally built in about 1875, the current facility was last expanded in 1985.

“The correctional needs of today have far exceeded the physical plant renovated 30 years ago,” Morton wrote in an email. “The mental health, substance abuse, medical and special needs of inmates require a facility capable of providing meaningful services.

“Many new and current inmates’ services will be able to expand, truly helping our mission of reducing recidivism,” he said. “The work environment will improve, helping those working in this difficult career succeed and perhaps even draw in more needed employees.”

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County Commissioner Laura Sanborn of Alton said last week that the people housed at the Penobscot County Jail are not the people it was designed and built for during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Society’s drug and mental health issues are keeping our daily populations at all-time highs,” she said. “There are not bad checkwriters and night hunters in jail now. These prisoners are friends and family to folks that we encounter in our daily living who have made bad choices and deserve a modern facility.”

Commissioner Andre Cushing of Newport did not respond to a request for comment.