Police & Fire

Penobscot County Jail risks losing its license due to overcrowding

By Sawyer Loftus, Penobscot Times Staff

Penobscot County Jail could lose its license after a biannual inspection found it to be over capacity. 

The county has three days left to tell the Maine Department of Corrections how it will address overcrowding after its jail on Wednesday reported having 39 more people than it is licensed to hold.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said that the department conducted one of its two biannual inspections of the county jail Aug. 4-6 and concluded that the overcrowding needed to be remedied “immediately.” The county has until Saturday to deliver to the state a plan on how it will lower the population of the jail, Morton said. 

The Penobscot County Jail has been overcrowded at different times for several years, but the risk of losing its license — which would mean no more prisoners could be added to the facility — has escalated the urgency to find a solution quickly. 

When the state did its inspection, the jail was holding 212 in-house with 24 boarded out to another facility. On Wednesday, the jail had 196 in-house and 56 boarded out. 

The jail’s state-rated capacity is 157 people. 

“We have to address the overcrowding immediately, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Morton said. 

The state should have been aware of the jail’s situation prior to the inspection because county jails report their populations to the state at midnight each day, Morton said.

In January 2020, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty declined to issue an occupancy permit to the Penobscot County Jail unless it kept the population at 157 and the county has been working to address the issue. 

So far, Penobscot County has increased the number of inmates it boards out, which Morton warned could soon cost the county $1 million annually. 

In early 2020, county commissioners endorsed a proposal to demolish the former YMCA on Hammond Street and build an eight-story, 250-bed jail in its place at a cost of between $65 million and $70 million.

But that plan was met with sharp criticism from Bangor city councilors, nearby residents and at least one member of the advisory board that twice recommended a new facility as the best solution to the aging and overcrowded jail.

The plan the county will present to Corrections soon includes working with the judicial system to help decrease the number of people in jail who are waiting for trial, which represents 84 percent of the current occupants, develop better mental health services, investigate facility changes with county commissioners and ask other places with open beds to take on some of the county’s population.

But shifting people in jail around isn’t as easy as putting them on a bus and sending them across the state — there are only three facilities that have open beds and they don’t necessarily have the staff to safely secure people in jail, Morton said. 

“We’ve just entered into another agreement with Androscoggin and Two Bridges Regional facility in Wiscasset,” he said. “One of the challenges is that we’re hearing both from the state and other counties similar to us is that some jails have the capacity but they have no staff.” 

Another frustration is that not all the people inside the county jail are being held for Penobscot County law enforcement, Morton said. On the dates of the inspection, the county was holding six people for the state of Maine contributing to the 212 person headcount. 

The last time the jail was below its state-rated capacity was during the onset of the pandemic, Morton said. 

The Department of Corrections could not be reached immediately for comment.

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