Penobscot County Jail. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The closure of the Penobscot County Jail to new inmates because of a coronavirus outbreak has forced area police to transport the people they arrest to jails in other counties, leaving some departments short-staffed during those long drives.

It’s one ripple effect from the outbreak among jail staff that Sheriff Troy Morton announced last week.

As of Tuesday, nine jail personnel and two other county employees had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Erika Honey, the county administrator. No inmates have tested positive, but Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention opened an outbreak investigation on Thursday.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

The outbreak has stretched the staff of corrections officers at the jail, as many have had to stay home from work due to coronavirus exposure. In addition, the jail hasn’t taken in new inmates during the outbreak, forcing local police off their usual beats to drive people they arrest to jails in Ellsworth and Belfast.

Police in Penobscot County and around the state have generally made fewer arrests since the pandemic began a year ago to limit jail populations, often issuing court summonses instead of taking people into custody. Officers have also allowed arrestees to post bail at police stations instead of at the county jail, where COVID-19 can spread among inmates living in close quarters.

“Unfortunately, we still encounter situations where people don’t have bail money or aren’t allowed to bail per an arrest warrant,” said Sgt. Wade Betters of the Bangor Police Department. “Those cases, along with domestic violence assault arrests, are further taxing police resources.”

Since the jail stopped taking in new inmates on Feb. 22, Bangor police have transported four arrestees to jails in Ellsworth, a round trip of at least an hour, and Belfast, a round trip of at least two hours.

In one instance, Betters said, a woman was arrested on felony drug charges. An officer was about to take her to the Hancock County Jail but learned in a phone call that the jail had no room for a female. The woman was able to contact a friend who could post her cash bail, Betters said. 

In another case, a man tried to turn himself in at the Bangor jail on a warrant for allegedly violating his bail conditions on a felony domestic violence assault charge. Bangor police ended up taking him to the Waldo County Jail.

Brewer Public Safety Director Jason Moffitt said his department had taken one person, from a domestic violence arrest on Wednesday, to another county jail since the outbreak. An officer was taken off the schedule and drove the inmate to the Hancock County Jail in Ellsworth a half hour away.

“That’s kind of a long round trip,” Moffitt said.

Newport Police Chief David Wintle said his squad had not needed to transport any arrestees since the outbreak. Newport police have tried to avoid taking inmates to the Penobscot County Jail since the pandemic began, Wintle said, due to persistent overcrowding at the facility and the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“We’re still doing our job effectively and charging people,” Wintle said. “We’re just trying to bail them instead of taking them to jail.”

The Bangor jail’s outbreak and resulting diversion of inmates to other jails shows the baselessness of continuing to incarcerate so many new people during a pandemic, said Irving Faunce, who chairs the board of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Faunce said he’s been encouraged by police efforts to reduce jail populations during the pandemic, and he hopes they continue afterward. He’d also like to see Maine eliminate cash bail, as Illinois did last month, becoming the first state to do so.

Diverting Penobscot County inmates to other counties brings those inmates farther away from their families, and it could make it difficult for them to work on their legal defense, Faunce said.

“It’s disorienting to the inmate, whose attorney is probably in the Bangor area,” he said.

Morton told county commissioners on Tuesday that he hoped the jail would resume accepting newly arrested inmates on Monday or Tuesday. He said Thursday that he did not know how many new arrestees or people turning themselves in had been turned away over the past 10 or so days.

“We appreciate the response by local law enforcement,” Morton said. “This is a perfect example of why a new or expanded correctional facility benefits all local law enforcement.”

The sheriff has advocated for the construction of a new jail to replace the current chronically overcrowded, aging facility. But county commissioners no longer agree on whether an addition would be sufficient or if the county needs an entirely new facility.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the situation involving a felony drug arrest by Bangor police.