oxford, Maine

Androscoggin County Jail could close under LePage administration proposal

by Steve Sherlock, Staff Editor Sun Journal Feb. 6, 2018

A proposal to restructure Maine county jails could result in the closing of the Androscoggin County Jail.

County jails in Oxford and Franklin counties could also close in a model released by the Maine Department of Corrections.

In a 12-page proposal issued Friday by the Maine DOC, the creation of the Maine Jail Commission would oversee the operation of the 15 county jails. Those jails would be divided into three authorities — southern, coastal and northern.

The goal of the DOC would be to close one or two county jails per authority. The cost savings would be “felt immediately

According to Rep. Martin Grohman (I-Biddeford), a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the DOC recommends closing five county jails.

In a model presented to the committee, closing the Androscoggin, Oxford, Franklin, Washington and Piscataquis county jails would save the state nearly $11 million.

County officials criticized the proposal and its reported savings.

Androscoggin County Administrator Larry Post blasted the report Monday, saying county officials were not consulted. He added that the savings claimed in the report do not add up.

“A sixth-grader could have done a better job at analysis,” Post said. “Simply, it furthers an agenda without any real credible facts involved.”

The Androscoggin jail is the largest of the five suggested for closure, with an average daily prisoner count of 162 inmates. The jail, however, has the lowest costs in Maine, at $37,000 per inmate. Cumberland County, for example, has an average cost of $47,000.

“Quite frankly,” Post said, “they don’t seem to have a sense of reality of how things work and for all the costs involved.”

For example, the report does not take into consideration the cost to transport inmates to court appearances, Post said, which would increase significantly under the proposal. Post also wonders how municipalities and counties would handle police coverage issues if officers were tied up transporting individuals to a distant county jail following an arrest.

Franklin County, for example, would have to transport its inmates to Madison.

“It would be about a three-hour trip by the time the inmate is brought to a jail, booked and the officer returns to the town he or she works for,” said Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols.

He added that towns who have police departments would have to call in another officer to cover while the officer transports the inmate.

The proposal creates a Maine Jail Commission with an executive director, a few paid staffers and a seven-member board of directors appointed by the governor. The commission will control funding for the jails.

Each of three regional authorities will have an administrator and a board of directors of 12 members consisting of county commissioners, sheriffs, members of the DOC and the members of the public.

The DOC says the new plan would better utilize bed space in the system. It cited only two of the jails had overcrowding issues in October 2017 — Androscoggin and Penobscot — resulting in more than 500 empty beds in the system. 

“Under the regional approach, even with the closure of 1-2 facilities per region,  these beds become available at no additional cost,” according to the report.

According to the model shared with the committee, Androscoggin and Oxford would send its inmates to Cumberland County, which, according to the DOC estimates, has 231 available beds.

Grohman said greater savings could be achieved with employment, mental health and substance abuse programs in jails.

The DOC admits the plan  may not be without flaws.

“This proposal may not be perfect, but the administration of sound public policy shall not be based on perfection; perfect shall not be the enemy of good public policy,” according to the report.

This is the latest plan to overhaul the county jail system. In 2008, the legislature created the Board of Corrections as a compromise between county and state control.

A critic of the system, Gov. Paul LePage said it provided the counties with no incentives to cut costs. The system collapsed in 2015 when the governor refused to to fill the vacancies on the board.

Current jail funding costs approximately $80 million a year. The counties pay $62 million of that with the state picking up the rest.

The DOC did not respond to requests to comment for this story.