Police & Fire

Sheriff: Penobscot County needs a new jail to address problems

By Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News Staff

Staff addressing concerns outlined in report on Penobscot jail culture

Penobscot County Jail staff are addressing recommendations outlined in a report on the culture inside the facility while commissioners continue to pursue construction of a modern correctional facility they say would better address inmates’ mental health and substance use disorder diagnoses.

The report, paid for with a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, outlines the steps Sheriff Troy Morton and staff need to take to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, also known as PREA, which Congress approved 20 years ago. The act provides information, resources, recommendations and funding to protect people from being sexually assaulted while incarcerated.

The report, which addressed more than just sexual safety, said that the aging facility doesn’t allow for best practices that could better address the mental health and substance use disorder issues many inmates are facing. A new jail also would allow for better surveillance than is possible in the aging facility and help prevent possible sexual assaults.

“The facility needs to be replaced and the report clearly shows how it negatively impacts the operation, staff and inmates,” Morton said Thursday.

The report supports the commissioners’ quest to replace the jail in a Bangor location not yet determined. Plans to build a new  200 to 300-bed facility, estimated to cost between $65 and $70 million in 2018, were put on hold after a public outcry over a proposed eight-story facility on the site of the former YMCA on Hammond Street. Commissioners recently put out a request for proposals for a marketing firm to help educate the public on the need for a new correctional facility.

The report was submitted to commissioners earlier this year after a team from the Moss Group, a Washington, D.C.,-based public safety, criminal justice consulting firm, visited the facility in July when some COVID-19 restrictions still were in place.

One recommendation that Morton said he is arranging for is a PREA refresher training for staff, the cost of which would be covered partially by the grant. The report found that while staff said they had received the training, many could not remember most of the content and needed practical information on how to apply the PREA standards to situations in the jail. 

Inmates who knew the most about the prevention program reported learning about it at other facilities, including at Maine Department of Corrections facilities. More training on how staff can better work with mentally ill inmates also was recommended. 

Inmates reported that they felt safe from physical and sexual assaults in the jail but said that pandemic restrictions that included suspension of in-person visits, programming, recreation and library access had resulted in too much idle time. Many inmates said that the lack of in-person visits and the high cost of virtual visits had made them feel isolated and disconnected from family.

A staffing shortage of 14 corrections officers in the jail, which is part of a national trend, makes it difficult but not impossible to schedule training, according to Morton. That along with the overcrowding and aging facility combine “to create a situation where the jail experiences almost constant crisis management in basic ares, such as covering costs, covering shifts, and supporting physical, emotional, and sexual safety, as well addressing the complex needs for staff wellness and programming for incarcerated individual to support rehabilitation.

Now that the pandemic is over, access to the library, recreation and additional clean laundry in the jail is available. In-person visits have not been restarted but video visits are available. Commissioners recently approved the purchase of new inmate clothing, which addressed inmates’ concerns about having enough clean laundry.

Other recommendations the report said need to be addressed include: better communications among leadership and staff, increased reporting of incidents of staff misconduct, a new and improved staff orientation process, more reviews of the use of force incidents, a greater willingness on the part of inmates and training in bystander intervention in conflict situations.

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