April 06, 2020

Changes under way to curb crowding at jail

BANGOR – Penobscot County is more than halfway through adding nearly 50 beds to Penobscot County Jail, part of a long-term project to reduce crowding at the facility.

The addition of 46 beds – 25 of which have been installed – is part of a variance agreement the county reached in the spring with the Maine Department of Corrections to alleviate a chronic problem.

The jail has a rated capacity of 136 but last year had an average daily population of 173, with some days peaking at more than 200 inmates.

“It’s a step forward,” Capt. Rick Clukey, Penobscot County Jail administrator, said after meeting Tuesday with the Penobscot County Commissioners.

Adding the remainder of the beds – a process that will weld single beds into bunk beds – is expected to be completed later this fall.

The addition of eight corrections officers, two per shift, will allow for jail staff to supervise inmates from inside the cell block during waking hours. Current procedures have corrections officers doing rounds every 15 to 30 minutes to check on inmates and cell blocks.

It was during one of those checks on July 27 that corrections officers found Mark Edward Howard, 46, of Eddington hanging from a railing in a cell block.

As well as helping to avoid similar situations, direct supervision would make it easier for corrections officers to prevent vandalism and fights, jail officials said after the meeting Tuesday.

“We hope that direct supervision will minimize some of that,” Clukey told the commissioners.

The Maine Department of Corrections, as part of the variance it granted to the county, also required some long-range planning to reduce chances of future overcrowding.

Provisions in the variance also stipulate that jail officials work in the community to develop and implement programs.

For more than a year, Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross and other county officials have been part of a Jail Diversion Committee, which has looked at ways of reducing inmate populations, particularly those with mental health issues, as well as providing needed services for those inside the jail.

And on Tuesday Ross suggested establishing a board of visitors, a panel charged with evaluating how the jail performs. Similar panels have been required by law for state correctional facilities, and in recent years have been adopted at some county jails.

Commissioner Tom Davis welcomed the idea and acknowledged that sometimes having other perspectives from people not so close to the institution are beneficial.

“Sometimes having someone so close to it, they miss something,” Davis said.

A county Jail Expansion Advisory Committee also has been established and is tackling the issue of expanding the existing jail or building a new one, a process that could take two years or more, a committee member has said.

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