Penobscot County Commissioners David Marshall, Andre Cushing III and Peter Baldacci (left to right) during a Commissioners' meeting on January 3, 2023. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Penobscot County officials on Friday denied that federal funds were used illegally on repairs to the Penobscot County Jail as the American Civil Liberties Union claimed in a letter to the U.S. Treasury, which oversees how the funds may be spent.

The statement was issued after the ACLU included Penobscot County in a 10-page letter seeking an investigation into how some state and county governments are using money from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund the new construction of jails and prisons.

Penobscot County has received $29.5 million from that federal pandemic relief legislation that passed Congress in 2021, an amount that’s larger than the county’s annual budget.

The ACLU claims the money spent on the Bangor jail violates the regulations, which run more than 100 pages, on how the money can be spent.

“Penobscot County has allocated a portion of funds from the American Rescue Plan for important repairs to our correctional facility,” the county statement said. “These funds were allocated from the portion of ARPA funding which was released under the revised Treasury rules for county government capital expenditures. Penobscot County provided necessary repairs to our correctional facility to provide for the health and safety of our inmates and staff.”

The statement was not signed but was on Penobscot County stationery with the names of the commissioners — Peter Baldacci of Bangor, Andre Cushing of Newport and David Marshall of Millinocket — listed at the top of the page.

County Administrator Scott Adkins said Friday that the rules about how ARPA money can be spent have evolved since the funds were allocated, and that has caused some confusion. For example, the money can now be spent on road projects, but it could not have been allocated there a year ago, he said.

The ARPA funds spent so far that have been reported to the Treasury as required by law include: salary and expenses for a grant manager; hazard pay to jail employees for working during the pandemic; an upgrade to the time clock used by jail and other employees; and a technical upgrade to the computer system. Exact numbers were not available Friday.

Funds have been allocated to the following projects for upgrades or replacement at the jail: a body scanner at a cost of $140,000; a new control room at a cost of $1 million; an update to the elevator at a cost of $112,000; and the replacement of the boilers at the jail and the Historic Penobscot County Courthouse at a cost of $760,000.

Those projects will be included in future reports to the Treasury, according to Adkins.

County commissioners last year discussed whether it would be possible to spend some of the ARPA funds on a 100-bed addition to the jail, but dropped the idea when they learned that new construction would not be allowed under the rules.

One of the biggest problems with the aging jail has been the repeated breakdown of the elevator, according to Sheriff Troy Morton. Over the past three years, the elevator has malfunctioned frequently,  Morton has told commissioners.

Because the jail does not have a mess hall or large community room, meals must be delivered to inmates in their cells. Carrying the meal trays up and down the stairs is difficult, he has said.

If an inmate on an upper floor needs medical attention, first responders must carry their equipment up and down the stairs, the sheriff has said. Moving inmates from one part of the jail to another is more difficult without a working elevator, especially if they have medical conditions that make climbing stairs difficult.

Anahita Sotoohi, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maine familiar with how ARPA funds are being spent, on Friday called the jail repairs “improper” and said they go against the intent of the legislation.

“America Rescue Plan Act funds are — per Treasury rule — meant to be used to help communities recover from COVID-19, with a particular emphasis on helping lower-income communities,” she said in response to the commissioners’ statement. “This is true regardless of whether the money was released as a capital expenditure.”

Penobscot County has long sought to renovate or construct an entirely new jail to replace its current facility, which is more than 100 years old.

The jail is licensed by the Maine Department of Corrections to hold 157 inmates, but regularly holds dozens more. The county has budgeted $1 million for this year to board inmates at other facilities.

“Channeling money into jails does not help communities recover from the pandemic because communities aren’t helped by locking people up — they are helped by receiving services like housing and medical care, all things Penobscot County could and should use ARPA funds to provide,” Sotoohi said. “The use of ARPA funds at [the] Penobscot County Jail remains improper.”