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

The Penobscot County Jail is functioning without 25 percent of its staff due to vacancies and medical leaves, according to Sheriff Troy Morton.

Morton told Penobscot County commissioners this week that there were 11 open positions at the perpetually overcrowded and aging facility. Another three staff members were out for approved medical leaves, he said.

That will mean increased overtime for corrections officers, potentially leading the county to exceed its overtime budget again this year.

In 2020, Penobscot County budgeted $414,500 in overtime costs for corrections officers but spent $519,674. The proposed 2022 budget includes $532,000 for overtime at the jail.

The county is advertising on its website and Facebook page for corrections officers with a pay scale of between $19.85 and $24.31 an hour and benefits. The county is also offering a $1,000 signing bonus with $500 paid after the successful completion of a nine-month probationary period and the rest paid at the completion of the second year of full-time status.

Morton said that overcrowding and the fact that more and more inmates in the Bangor jail have substance use disorders and mental health diagnoses have made the job more stressful.

“Over the Labor Day weekend, we had more than 25 arrestees brought into the jail and two inmates hospitalized,” the sheriff said Tuesday. “That further strained staff and resources.”

Jails throughout Maine and the state prison system have struggled for at least a decade to hire and keep corrections officers and guards. Statewide, the number of corrections officers in Maine county jails fell to 725 in 2020 from 825 in 2015, according to annual reports from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.

Law enforcement agencies also have reported far fewer applicants for jobs than in the past. A handful of small-town police forces in rural Maine have folded in recent years and contracted with the county sheriffs’ offices for law enforcement. Others struggle to maintain full rosters.

Morton reported Tuesday that there were 199 people in the jail, which is licensed to hold 157, with 59 boarded out to other facilities in the state. Another 116 had been released and were under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services, a private firm.

The sheriff recently worked out agreements with the Androscoggin County Jail in Lewiston and Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset to board Penobscot County Jail inmates. But Morton reported on Tuesday that the Lewiston jail had requested that five inmates boarded there be returned to the jail in Bangor because of their disruptive behavior.

Last month, the Maine Department of Corrections, which licenses county jails, gave county officials until the end of November to get the Bangor jail’s inmate numbers down to 157. Morton has said that it will take cooperation from other institutions to accomplish that.

“The reasons for overcrowding are complex and not the sole responsibility of the sheriff,” he said. “The judicial system, local law enforcement, mental health services, the Maine Department of Corrections, municipal and county governments all play a role in how many people are under the county’s supervision.”

Over the past three years, county commissioners have considered numerous plans to expand the aging facility or build a new jail. Last year, commissioners endorsed a proposal to demolish the former YMCA building it owns on Hammond Street and build a 250-bed, eight-story facility on that site. Commissioners put that idea on hold after Bangor officials and residents sharply criticized the design.

The county has hired an engineering firm to assess whether any portion of the former YMCA can be converted to office space so administrative space in the jail can be converted into cells. That report is not due until next month.