The Penobscot County Jail and Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office in Bangor are shown Nov. 14, 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre

By law, every correctional facility in Maine is supposed to have a board of visitors. For years, state correctional facilities and county jails have operated without this needed oversight.

Fortunately, the boards are being restarted, as they must be. The boards, typically made up of community members, are not meant to second-guess corrections officials. Rather they provide a fresh perspective and important independent oversight of a system that is largely hidden from public view.

The state needs independent oversight because “prisons and jails are about as closed institutions as exist in our society,” Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the law school at the University of Texas, Austin, told the Bangor Daily News in 2017. “We see people dying, whether from suicides or health conditions that are neglected. These are institutions that cost the citizens a great deal of money, and we don’t know how that money is being spent.”

The BDN looked into the lack of boards of visitors, in part, because of serious problems at the state’s youth detention facility in South Portland. The Long Creek Youth Development Center was increasingly being used to house young people with severe mental illnesses, even though the center was ill-equipped to treat them and struggled to keep them safe, the facility’s board of visitors said in a 2016 annual report.

The report came after a 16-year old transgender boy hanged himself at the facility while on suicide watch and another inmate strangled herself but survived.

Then-Gov. Paul LePage responded to the board’s criticism by refusing to appoint new members so the board was essentially disbanded.

This is not only bad practice, it is against the law. State laws requires both state correctional facilities and county jails to have oversight boards. The board is meant to “review the management of the correctional facility to which it is assigned to determine whether that management is consistent with the philosophy, mission and policy goals of the department and facility,” according to the law that established the boards for state correctional facilities.

The youth center board of visitors, as well as others in the state correctional system, are being reactivated, said Deputy Corrections Commission Ryan Thornell. Gov. Janet Mills and Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty are committed to ensuring all the state facilities have functional boards of visitors and are currently working through nominations for boards that need members. They are an important outside entity that provides valuable oversight and can build community support, Thornell said in an interview.

The county boards have a particular charge of making recommendations to sheriffs on the treatment of inmates with mental illness, an important role as a significant percentage of jail inmates have mental health diagnoses. They have no requirement to meet or produce reports, under the statute. This weakness should be considered by lawmakers to ensure the board’s work is taken seriously.

Penobscot County was one of the first to establish a board of visitors for its jail in 2007, but it ceased to exist, a change county officials could not explain.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton had been using a jail diversion committee, which was created in 2004 and met regularly to address overcrowding and the need for improved mental health services at the jail.

After being pressed by a former inmate, Morton has recreated a formal board of visitors. Its nine members, which he initially declined to provide to the BDN, include local mental health and substance abuse professionals.

Other jails, namely in Piscataquis and Androscoggin counties, are searching for people to serve on their boards.

Boards of visitors can provide valuable accountability, perspective and support for correctional facilities. That’s why they were mandated by law and that’s why it’s important that the state and counties have them in place.