Critics of Penobscot County Jail expansion plan call for decarceration effort

MAINE BEACON - Advocates are pushing back against an effort by Penobscot County to increase capacity of its Bangor-based jail, saying the expansion effort is misguided and urging the county to instead focus on reducing the number of people it incarcerates.

Peter Baldacci, a commissioner for Penobscot County, said the county is currently seeking proposals from architectural firms for the jail expansion project, with the deadline for the firms to submit plans set for Dec. 17. According to a request for proposals document from Nov. 15, the initiative is meant to “accommodate an average daily inmate population of at least 260, with the ability to expand to a daily population of 360” — a plan that was reiterated at a Dec. 3 meeting between county officials and potential architectural and construction firms. The jail is currently licensed for 157 incarcerated people.

The project — which comes after the county initially considered building a new jail before settling on the expansion plan — would also entail renovations to create a new intake area, a larger medical unit, and room for additional rehabilitative programming.

Baldacci said the initiative is a response to frequent overcrowding at the jail, with the facility often exceeding the number of incarcerated people it is licensed for. That situation has prompted the state to threaten to pull the facility’s license.

The county has attempted to deal with that problem in part by sending people to other facilities, but those plans have been hampered by a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility, which faced complaints earlier this year from inmates about its virus protocols, among other issues. Throughout the pandemic, prisons and jails have been hotbeds of virus cases.

Group pushes back on jail expansion

Baldacci said the jail is consistently responsible for about 230 to 240 people on average, with around 180 usually incarcerated in the facility and the rest sent to different correctional centers. However, Baldacci said the practice of boarding people out to other facilities should be avoided if possible, as transporting them back and forth creates a challenge to resolving their cases in a timely manner.

Ultimately, Baldacci said he wants to see incarceration in the county reduced. But with the current overcrowding problem, people aren’t getting services they need, he said. Moving forward with the project would allow for the county to handle 230 to 240 people and keep those arrested in-county, he argued, rather than sending them elsewhere.

“The only way to reduce the boarding and have a facility that’s safer and able to provide more services is by expanding the jail,” he said.

However, those against the project, such as the group No Penobscot County Jail Expansion, argue that the best solution to the overcrowding issue is to arrest and imprison fewer people rather than increase carceral capacity.

That’s particularly true because many of the people in the jail are imprisoned for minor violations, said Julia Norman, a member of No Penobscot County Jail Expansion.

“It just turns out that a large number of people in that jail are there for nonviolent offenses, not the least of which is substance use,” said Norman, who analyzed public data for those at the jail on Dec. 3 and found that more than half the charges were related to probation, bail or substance use issues. Norman has done additional analyses at other points in time and found similar results.

In addition, Baldacci said about 70% of people in Penobscot County Jail on average are there pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of any crime and are legally innocent.

No Penobscot County Jail Expansion is urging the county to pursue an alternative path of reducing the jail population, arguing in a plan submitted to officials that incarceration is harmful to people’s lives, has little impact on crime levels, and punishes many people who are suffering from mental health and/or substance use issues. Furthermore, the group stated that communities become less safe as a result of incarceration, as jail “encourages a culture of criminality.”

As a result, the organization said Penobscot County should focus on reducing its jail population by 75 to 100 people or more. The county could achieve that goal by reforming or eliminating bail, which disproportionately impacts low-income people, for certain offenses, the advocates stated. The group also argued that the county should increase the use of diversion programs in response to minor crimes and initial offenses, reduce sentences for probation or bail violations, coordinate more effectively with reentry services, make fewer arrests in the first place, expand services for mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and reduce the length of sentences for those convicted, among other policies.

For many of those policies, the county could use funds coming from the American Rescue Plan Act, No Penobscot County Jail Expansion said. Penobscot County is receiving nearly $30 million in ARPA money, with the city of Bangor and other municipalities in the county getting additional allocations.

Instead, Penobscot County officials have floated using some ARPA funding to help pay for the jail expansion. Baldacci confirmed that using a portion of ARPA money on the project is still a part of the county’s plan.

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