Penobscot County is asking architectural firms for proposals to add about 100 beds to its existing jail on Hammond Street in Bangor, marking the county’s latest attempt to ease overcrowding at the 161-year-old facility that regularly exceeds its licensed capacity of 157 inmates.
After deliberating for years on alleviating overcrowding and proposing to build an entirely new jail before putting that plan on hold, county commissioners said Tuesday that their latest course of action will be to add onto the existing Penobscot County Jail.
The county would pay for the bulk of construction through borrowing, though it will look into using a portion of its $30 million in federal American Rescue Plan money to pay a portion of the costs, said Peter Baldacci, chair of the county commission.
In addition to 100 more beds, the expanded facility would include a new and safer intake area, an expanded medical unit so inmates may be cared for in the facility rather than admitted to local hospitals when ill and new space that would allow for more programming.
The annex behind the Historic County Courthouse where most county government offices are located would be torn down to make room for the proposed addition.
The former YMCA building up Hammond Street that the county has eyed as the location for a new jail would be partially renovated to house offices now in the jail. The section that housed the swimming pool and the racquetball courts would be demolished.
“The addition to the jail would be a priority over the Y work,” Baldacci said Tuesday. “We need to have capacity for 250 inmates. That’s what we consistently have in-house and boarded out.”
The county is looking into using the federal recovery money to pay for construction that addresses safety, such as the expanded medical unit and intake area, Baldacci said. He also said commissioners want to set aside some recovery funds for substance use treatment and preventive programs, something that members of the public have urged them to do.
“This is going to be much more cost effective” than building a new jail, Baldacci said. “The system is not going to get us below 250 inmates anytime soon. This is not an expansion but to meet our current housing needs.”
There were 173 inmates in the jail on Tuesday with an additional 42 boarded out at other facilities, according to Sheriff Troy Morton. He also said that 196 defendants awaiting trial were being supervised in the community by Maine Pretrial Services, a private firm.
The Maine Department of Corrections, which licenses county jails, has given the sheriff until mid-November to get the population down to 157 or risk losing its license.
Overcrowding and a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the jail shut down intake at the facility, forcing local law enforcement to bail arrestees from police stations or to ask jails in adjacent counties to take in all but the most violent offenders, Brewer Public Safety Director Jason Moffitt told commissioners Tuesday.
Moffitt and every member of the Brewer City Council attended Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting to demand that the county solve the overcrowding problem at the jail quickly.
“The bottom line is that this is a conversation started six or eight years ago. We’re beyond conversation. The time is now to come to a resolution,” Brewer Councilor Jerry Goss said. “The reason we’re here as a council is when we look at our budget every year the biggest check we write is to Penobscot County.”
The bulk of that money goes to the jail and the sheriff’s office, he said.
“The biggest detriment to public safety in the city of Brewer is Penobscot County. We need that issue resolved. We’re sending good money to the county but we’re not getting a jail system that meets our needs.”
Goss also criticized the court system and the large backlog of cases that built up while courts largely shut down during the pandemic.
The causes of overcrowding at the jail are complex and require state-level changes to resolve, especially in addressing the mental health needs of some inmates who should not be in jail, Commissioner Andre Cushing of Newport said.
“I, personally, am greatly disappointed with mental health services” from the state, he said. “We are not getting the support we need to offer them the treatment they need.”
Cushing urged Brewer councilors to lobby Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature to do more to meet inmates’ mental health needs while incarcerated and once they are released.
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 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.