Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said a larger 72-hour holding facility is needed in Caribou to assist smaller towns transporting suspected criminals. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Central and northern Aroostook County’s only 72-hour holding facility for people charged with crimes is being stretched beyond its capacity, according to the several police departments who use it.

If a major legislative bond does not pass, city leaders will have to find even more money through grants and other sources to build the new police station that houses the holding cell.

The station, which was built in 1939 and renovated once in 1977, is in Caribou Municipal Building’s basement and has inadequate storage and problems with leaking water among other issues. Caribou Police Department is trying to find funding to build a new station.

Some of Aroostook’s smaller police departments have their own holding facilities. But starting in the 1980s, new state regulations required departments to house prisoners no more than 72 hours while they await arraignment hearings and make bail. The state also requires prisoners to be monitored 24 hours a day.

But most Aroostook departments did not have enough officers for a 24-hour watch, so they began transporting people who did not make bail to Caribou. Many departments in more northern towns use Caribou’s facility to avoid time-consuming trips to the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton.

“Going to Houlton is a two-hour trip one way,” said Fort Kent Police Chief Michael DeLena, whose town is nearly 100 miles from Houlton. “It’s definitely more convenient to have a holding facility between here and Houlton.”

Last year, Caribou held nearly 400 prisoners from surrounding towns at its facility compared with 250 to 270 in the years just before the pandemic. Police Chief Michael Gahagan attributes that increase to more drug-related arrests and departments looking to save money and officer overtime by not transporting prisoners to the Aroostook County Jail in Houlton.

Every town in central and northern Aroostook uses Caribou’s holding facility, Gahagan said.

Caribou has three 100-square-foot cells designated for adults — two for men, one for women — and one juvenile cell the department often uses as overflow for adults. But in a new police station, Caribou would need at least six cells, ideally 125 square feet each, to meet demand, Gahagan said.

Among the towns that frequently use Caribou’s holding cells are Ashland and Washburn, who share a police force, only employ on-call officers and have no jail cells at their stations.

Washburn is 10 miles from Caribou but more than 50 miles from the county jail. Ashland is nearly 30 miles from Caribou and more than 60 miles from Houlton.

“We only have one officer per shift,” said Cyr Martin, the towns’ police chief. “A 2½-hour trip [to Houlton] leaves the town without coverage if I don’t have another officer.”

Last June, local voters authorized Caribou leaders to spend no more than $10 million on a new police station. The station’s price tag proved controversial among city councilors and residents who think the city should look at less costly alternatives, such as renovations to the entire municipal building.

So far Caribou has received $2.5 million in congressional funds that U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, advocated for. Most recently, State Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, proposed that the Legislature fund $3 million for an expanded holding facility as part of a statewide public safety and infrastructure bond package.

If passed, state voters would decide on the entire bond package in November. But Jackson said it is unlikely that it will gain the required two thirds vote in both the House and the Senate.

“I definitely see support [for Caribou’s facility] but not as part of the larger package,” said Jackson, who indicated the bond package did not have enough Republican support in the Legislature.

House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, suggested an alternative to funding the police station through a state bond.

“Instead of blaming Republicans, [Democrats] could fund the police station in their partisan budget without borrowing money,” Faulkingham said.

He was referring to the two-year $10 billion budget that Gov. Janet Mills signed into law in March after fellow Democrats pushed through a party-line budget. It was the second time in Mills’ tenure that Democrats, who hold a majority in the House and Senate, adopted a majority vote, adjourned the Legislature and resumed a special session.

With Jackson’s bond proposal looking unlikely to pass, Gahagan and city officials will seek alternative funding sources, like federal grants and possibly a local bond referendum that Caribou voters would need to approve. A bond issue would authorize the city to borrow money from a local bank to fund the project over a set period of years.

The lack of expansion space in the Caribou facility, the mold growing in the garage, rain water leaking indoors and inappropriate storage for sensitive files make it necessary for the department to relocate, Gahagan said.

“[Whether we’ll do a bond] depends on what other funding we get,” Gahagan said. “Voters already authorized us to spend $10 million, so any bond would not be more than that.”

The city has hired Bangor-based architects from Artifex to design the new station, which Gahagan said could include a basement garage for police vehicles, private and public meeting rooms and expanded storage and evidence processing rooms. That design is in the works and has not gone to city councilors for review, he said.