The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Brian Pitman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. Brenna Jones is an undergraduate mathematics and sociology student at the University of Maine. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university.
On Nov. 15, Penobscot County requested proposals for renovating the Penobscot County Jail. Proposals “must accommodate an average daily inmate population of at least 260, with the ability to expand to a daily population of 360.” This is more than double the jail’s current capacity of 157. To pay for this, the county is exploring borrowing options and using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds ( which may be a misappropriation of funds) to supplement that borrowing. The expansion of the jail is unnecessary and counterintuitive in solving the crises we are seeing in Penobscot County, including poverty, mental health, homelessness, and drug overdose deaths.
The expansion of the jail is unnecessary first, because crime rates have decreased in Penobscot County. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report data , the index crime rate for Penobscot County for Part I offenses, like murder, rape, robbery, burglary, among others, has fallen from 34.94 per 1,000 in 2009 to 16.14 per 1,000 in 2019. One may argue that the need to expand the jail is related to the county’s drug trafficking cases nearly doubling over the past two years, while statewide the amount of drugs and cash seized is higher than it was three years ago. Yet, this may be more of a reflection of police activity, given that police are able to keep cash seized from drug raids. Additionally, incarceration has a marginal to zero impact on all crime, and, even if the volume of drugs in the area has increased, jail only makes it more likely that a formerly incarcerated person dies of a drug overdose.
Second, the majority of people who are in jail have not been convicted of a crime ( 74 percent nationwide). Some are there on technical violations, while others are there because they cannot afford bail. Of those in jail unable to afford bail nationally, 60 percent come from the poorest third of society. Thus, they are there because they are poor. The Prison Policy Initiative found that pretrial reforms that decrease the jail population have actually decreased crime. Maine’s new bail law just went into effect on Oct. 18, making it possible Penobscot County Jail’s population and crime rates could decrease in the future.
Third, disability scholars like Liat Ben-Moshe note the disabling environment of incarceration settings like jails. While many view the relationship between disability (including mental illness) and incarceration as people being incarcerated because of their disability, Ben-Moshe notes that incarceration is oftentimes the cause of these disabilities. Incarceration is a traumatic and violent experience that, when compounded with previous traumatic experiences that incarcerated people are likely to have experienced, has a “disabling effect”. Given the recent trauma and violence documented inside Penobscot County Jail, its expansion will only compound the mental health of people currently and formerly incarcerated there and the community.
Instead of expanding the current jail, the county should use these funds to address housing insecurity and homelessness, which has substantially grown in the area. Homelessness is shown to be more prevalent among people who have been incarcerated in jail, while incarceration increases the likelihood of homelessness of the children of people incarcerated.
Jail, in combination with homelessness, may also increase the likelihood of deaths of all causes and drug-related and HIV-related mortality within two years. Housing insecurity is also greater among formerly incarcerated men. In general, homelessness and housing insecurity are “disabling” both physically and psychologically for formerly incarcerated people and those just experiencing these conditions. By focusing on housing, Penobscot County will be directly addressing root causes of crime, poverty, health issues, hospitalizations, and dangerous substance use. We should be building housing instead of renovating jail.