Penobscot County Commissioner Andre Cushing III (left) tours Penobscot County Jail on Tuesday with Lt. Keith Hotaling (center), support services division, and Brian MacDonald, facilities director, for first time since the pandemic to see the cramped conditions at the facility. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Penobscot County Jail is starting work on a $75,000 project to reconfigure space at the consistently overcrowded Bangor facility now that a long-discussed expansion is indefinitely on hold.

On Tuesday, Penobscot County commissioners who haven’t been able to settle on an expansion plan saw firsthand how starved the jail is for space and saw the start of the work to reconfigure the space.

While inmate populations fell dramatically statewide at the beginning of the pandemic, the Penobscot County Jail is routinely housing between five and a dozen inmates over the 157 it is licensed to hold due to a recent uptick in arrests.

Penobscot County Commissioners get a tour of the Penobscot County Jail on Tuesday for first time since the pandemic to see the cramped conditions that Sheriff Troy Morton describes at their weekly meetings. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Tuesday was the first time commissioners had toured the jail in two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are a year late in taking our annual tour but it is very important to visually take in what we know are some of the issues in the facility,” Commissioner Peter Baldacci of Bangor said at the end of the hour-long tour. “We need to get as much as we can out of this building as we look to the future.”

After supporting construction of an eight-story, 250-bed jail in a 116,879-square-foot building on the site of the former YMCA building up the street from the jail, Baldacci announced last August that the county could not afford it.

Neighbors, city officials and at least one member of an advisory committee that recommended a new facility be built also criticized the height and size of that proposed facility.

With an expansion on hold, Baldacci urged Sheriff Troy Morton and his staff to “be more creative” in how they use space at the jail, originally built in 1860 with an addition completed in the late 1980s.

Clockwise from left: Brian MacDonald, Lt. Keith Hotaling, Captain Rick Clukey, jail administrator, County Commissioner Peter Baldacci, Lt. Ty Babb, assistant jail administrator, and County Commissioner Andre Cushing III (left to right) tour the Penobscot County Jail on Tuesday. They visit the outside recreation area that was enclosed several years ago for year-round use; Babb leads commissioners on a tour of the jail; Clukey gives commissioners a tour for first time since the pandemic to see the cramped conditions that Sheriff Troy Morton describes at their weekly meetings; Penobscot County Administrator Erika Honey (left) and Cushing (right) tour the jail; Commissioners on the tour. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Morton and his staff took that seriously and came up with a six-step, $75,000 plan to reconfigure and make better use of the sections of the jail that don’t house inmates.

The first step involved converting the contact visit room to a multi-use space, according to Lt. Keith Hotaling. The tables that were bolted to the floor have been removed so the space can be used four days a week for inmates to view a video about their legal rights prior to their first court appearances and to appear remotely at the Penobscot Judicial Center. Small conference rooms have been added to allow inmates to meet privately with attorneys.

The change will allow the jail to have more than one video conference setup. It can be used for court appearances or telehealth conferences, Hotaling said. The space also can be used for inmates’ contact visits with families when they are allowed again.

The jail largely houses inmates who are awaiting trial after their arrests.

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

The space now used for remote court appearances will be converted into an intake area. That will allow intake to move away from the booking area where it’s currently done and where there is no privacy for arrestees coming into the jail to discuss medical or mental health needs.

“That will move half the staff out of the crowded booking area,” Hotaling said.

Booking records will be moved to the room where fingerprints and photos are taken, and that equipment will be moved to the booking area. Eventually, the booking area, designed in 1987, will be reconfigured.

The officers who transport inmates for court appearances and other purposes will move into an office next to the multi-use room, and Maine Pretrial Services will take over their former office. That organization needs more space since it is supervising more than 200 people who are out on bail awaiting trial.

“It’s a domino project,” Hotaling said. “Each step has to be completed before another can be started.”

Clockwise from left: Penobscot County Commissioners Peter Baldacci (far left), Andre Cushing III and Laura Sanborn (right) tour Penobscot County Jail with Captain Rick Clukey, jail administrator, on Tuesday for first time since the pandemic to see the cramped conditions. Some items are stored in hallways because of limited space; Laundry facilities at the jail; Commissioners visit the medical area; Cushing visits the kitchen during the tour. Credit: Linda Caon O’Kresik / BDN

Hotaling was unsure when it would be completed due to delays in getting materials. The latest is a shortage of epoxy that is needed to finish the floor in the multi-use room.

Other space problems are more challenging. The jail runs 35-pound industrial washers and dryers 24 hours a day with three crews to take care of the facility’s laundry because 50-pound machines won’t fit through the laundry room door. The larger machines would require only two crews working 16 hours a day, according to Hotaling.

Inmate clothing is stored on carts in hallways. Storage space in the kitchen also is limited, meaning the jail can’t always take advantage of bulk pricing.