Maine county hopes to win over voters to replace overcrowded jail with new facility

Penobscot County is looking to hire a marketing firm that would present educational details to the public about the need for a new jail, which would have to be approved by the voters

By Judy Harrison
Bangor Daily News, Maine

BANGOR, Maine — Penobscot County has given up on expanding its aging and perpetually overcrowded jail and is seeking a marketing firm to convince taxpayers to replace it with a new facility.

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.

The county is trying to sell that building. Commissioners met in late April with Penquis about the possibility of the non-profit purchasing the crumbling building to tear it down and build affordable housing.

The request for marketing proposals was posted in April on the county's website. It said that commissioners are seeking "vendors to assist in the promotion and presentation of a new County Corrections & Programs facility."

Information about when and where a new jail might be built is not included in the posting but it does say that commissioners hope to break ground within the next year or two. The posting makes clear that commissioners have given up on expanding the jail, which was the latest idea discussed.

"The physical structure of the building was not designed or can't be renovated to accommodate modern correctional standards of practice, privacy and/or direct supervision," it says.

[RELATED: Maine jail is 'falling apart' after kitchen, elevator and control panel stop working]

A group opposed to the jail's expansion said in a statement on Thursday that building a new facility is a "regressive and misguided plan."

"It's a terrible idea, and county officials know the public recognizes the need to invest in solutions, rather than construct a building to warehouse even more people — particularly when the county's population has declined and crime has dropped year after year for the past decade," No Penobscot County Jail Expansion said.

The group's members have advocated for treatment for substance use disorder and mental health diagnoses rather than incarceration.

Overall, the state's crime rate has fallen more than 50 percent over the past decade. While Penobscot County's rate has been consistently higher than the state's, it has also fallen in that period, by almost 45 percent. In 2021, the latest year for which statistics are available, Penobscot County had the second-highest crime rate in the state at 39.84 crimes per 1,000 people. Kennebec County was first at 40.07 crimes per 1,000 people.

Andre Cushing, commission chair, said that the county has had several assessments done in recent years that support the need for a new correctional facility that can offer a variety of services there is not room for in the current jail, including medical treatment and social services. He said that hiring a marketing firm will help the county prepare for questions from the public.

"As we look for a new location, we need to be prepared on how to present it to the public," he said.

The current facility is licensed by the Maine Department of Corrections to house 157 inmates but the jail is responsible for about 250 inmates — those in the jail, those boarded at other facilities and those on pretrial release contracts.

The county has budgeted $1 million this year to board out inmates due to overcrowding.

The chosen marketing firm would be responsible, along with county officials, for presenting educational details to the public about the need for a new jail, which would have to be approved by the voters. The time period for the contract would be from the point of being hired until the beginning of construction.

Proposals are due Friday, June 2, and are expected to be opened the following Tuesday at the commissioners' weekly meeting. It most likely would be mid to late June before a firm is selected.


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