Police & Fire

Penobscot County considers mobile jail made from semi-trailers to ease inmate overcrowding

By Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News Staff

Penobscot County is considering leasing a 50-bed mobile jail unit that would sit in the current jail’s parking lot to ease chronic overcrowding at the facility, which is licensed to hold 157 inmates.

While the exact cost of a mobile unit is not known, it is expected to cost far less than the $65 million to $70 million price of constructing a new 250-bed jail.

That was one of a dozen strategies to address overcrowding — and one of the few not previously considered — outlined by Sheriff Troy Morton in a plan submitted recently to the Maine Department of Corrections. The plan came in response to the department’s directive to decrease the number of inmates housed at the 161-year-old Hammond Street jail.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty has given Morton and his staff 90 days to decrease the jail population. If that goal is not met, under the law, Liberty has the authority to shut down the facility to new arrestees. The commissioner has said that his goal is “to assist them anyway I can and ensure that not only the residents are safe, but the employees, too.”

As of Aug. 25, 184 inmates were in the jail, 66 were boarded out at other facilities and 195 had been released under the supervision of Maine Pretrial Services, a private firm. Morton has said that it will cost up to $1 million to board out prisoners this year.

The county’s discussions with All Detainment Solutions, the Missouri-based manufacturer of the temporary jail units, are in the early stages and the estimated cost of a 50-bed unit is not yet available, according to County Administrator Erika Honey. It is one of several firms around the county that construct temporary jails to ease overcrowding.

The units are custom-made and configured from 52-foot-long semi-trailers that include areas for toilets and showers, a day room and an outdoor exercise area, according to information on the company’s website. The sleeping units can vary from two- or three-tiered bunk beds or include individual cells each with a bed, toilet and table.

A representative from All Detainment Solutions did not return requests for comment about the possible cost of a 50-bed unit. 

Last year, Canyon County, Idaho, leased a 13,000-square-foot, 122-bed facility — more than double the size of the facility Penobscot County is considering — to house female inmates at a cost of $4.5 million for the first year, the Idaho Press reported.

The jail, located in Caldwell, Idaho, was expected to pay $1.5 million a year after that for up to four additional years, when it would have the option of buying the mobile unit for a final payment of $1.9 million. The total potential cost in Canyon County was projected to be $12.4 million. 

Penobscot County is exploring all avenues of funding, including whether it can use the nearly $30 million in American Rescue Plan funds the county is slated to receive for mobile jail units, Honey said.

All Detainment Solutions’ first mobile jail unit was installed at the Greene County Jail in Springfield, Missouri, in late 2017.

A handful of experts interviewed by the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader criticized that mobile jail’s design, with one calling it a “recipe for disaster,” as the crowded conditions could pose safety and security risks.

“Not to mention the fact it just looks miserable to be living in those bunks in those incredibly cramped spaces,” David Shapiro, director of appellate litigation for the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school and former staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told the newspaper.

Even if Penobscot County decides to lease mobile units from the Missouri firm, it is highly unlikely they could be in Bangor before next year.

Another strategy Morton will use to reduce overcrowding includes the increased use of early release and furloughs.

Although 70 percent of the inmates housed at the jail and boarded at other facilities are awaiting trial, the sheriff will use early release more often than he has in the past for those who have been convicted and have almost served their sentences. 

A new law that takes effect in mid-October will increase the length of time sheriffs may furlough inmates from jails from three days to seven. Furloughs most often have been used to allow inmates to obtain medical treatment or attend funerals for family members. 

Going forward, Morton said, the increased number of furlough days will allow more inmates to attend the jail’s “day program,” which offers information on substance use disorders, mental health, job skills and locally available resources to help inmates when they are released. Inmates can earn time off their sentences by attending.

Those two strategies alone won’t ease overcrowding, according to Morton. “The reasons for overcrowding are complex and not the sole responsibility of the sheriff,” he said. “The judicial system, local law enforcement, mental health services, the Maine Department of Corrections, municipal and county governments all play a role in how many people are under county’s supervision.”

The document Morton submitted to the DOC outlined many of the challenges that contribute to overcrowding. They include a large backlog of criminal cases at the Penobscot Judicial Center due to protocols put in place during the pandemic, a lack of inpatient beds in medical facilities for inmates who need mental health treatment and staffing shortages at other jails that make it difficult for those facilities to consistently take in boarders. 

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.

The county has hired an engineering firm to assess whether any portion of the former YMCA could be converted to office space so administrative space in the jail could be converted into cells. That report is not due until early October, Honey said.

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