Staff shortage at Maine county jail leads feds to remove prisoners
Shortage of corrections officers also has forced the jail to stop accepting new arrestees except those charged with violent crimes, including domestic violence
By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald, Maine
PORTLAND, M.E. — The U.S. Marshals Service has removed federal prisoners from Cumberland County Jail because the facility is short-staffed, the sheriff said this week, the latest repercussion of a yearslong staffing crisis at the jail.
The shortage of corrections officers also has forced the jail to stop accepting new arrestees except those charged with violent crimes, including domestic violence, a union official said.
" Cumberland County wasn't able to provide everything that the feds wanted, and for that reason they decided to pull their inmates and send them to other facilities," said Daren Smith, business agent for the National Correctional Employees Union, which represents most of the jail's workers.
The jail now has 87 vacancies out of 185 authorized positions, not counting employees on temporary leave, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said Tuesday. The remaining 100 or so officers are forced to work up to three overtime shifts every week, a limit recently negotiated by the union, Smith said.
The long-term staffing crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic, and is part of the wider upheaval in labor markets playing out across the country.
Smith, a former corrections officer, said people simply are not applying to work in prisons and jails, despite the county's efforts to attract new candidates. Starting hourly pay is roughly $23 to $24, he said, with a maximum of three forced overtime shifts per week.
"It's not unique to Cumberland County, unfortunately," Smith said "Corrections as a whole, nationwide and statewide, these facilities are all understaffed and in my opinion they're all underpaid."
Local staff with the U.S. Marshals Service did not respond to questions either last week or Tuesday about the decision to remove federal prisoners, and there was no immediate response from separate inquiries with the U.S. Marshals' headquarters in Virginia. Joyce did not say how many federal inmates were housed at the Portland jail before they were moved.
A 2010 contract between the marshals and the county — the only detainee agreement with the jail listed on the federal website — suggests the agreement, if it has not changed since, reserves about 100 beds, mostly for male inmates. The jail has nearly 600 beds, but does not run at capacity.
The federal inmate contract is worth about $2.65 million in boarding revenue, which equals more than 12 percent of the jail's $21.5 million revenue projection for the 2021-22 fiscal year, according to budget documents.
In the last budget year, the actual revenue from the federal contract was projected to be $3.2 million, according to county records. The revenue depends on the number of federal inmates and how long they are held.
Joyce last week said that his agency was not informed in writing but was told during a phone call that the federal government was removing inmates. It's not clear when federal detainees might return, but Joyce said their departure was temporary.
On Tuesday, Joyce said the marshals conducted an annual audit, and last month sent his office a memo with a corrective action plan, which included a note about staffing levels, but it was not clear whether the audit findings triggered the decision to pull the inmates out. Joyce said the corrective plan was received sometime in August and the telephone call informing him of the decision to remove the federal prisoners occurred Aug. 22 or Aug. 23.
The sheriff said the move is costing the jail about $5,600 in lost revenue each day. As of Tuesday, 12 federal inmates remained in Portland. It was not clear when they would be moved, or where the inmates who have been removed have been taken.
"There has been no formal communication that the federal inmate contract is canceled," Joyce wrote in an email. "The U.S. Marshals have decided to move their inmates out of the Cumberland County Jail due to the staffing levels and certain programming concerns that they would like their inmates to have access to, that we can't currently accommodate, again, due to staffing. We are in constant communication with the U.S. Marshals and updating them on the progress of those concerns."
Joyce did not answer questions about what staffing level must be achieved or what programs or services must be restored before federal detainees might be permitted to return.
The jail has struggled to attract staff for years, so it's not clear what else may have triggered the decision. Last fall, the county declared an emergency at the jail and the sheriff restricted the intake of new prisoners during an outbreak of COVID-19 among residents and staff.
In addition to the staffing woes, three inmates died at the jail and a fourth succumbed to self-inflicted injuries he sustained while locked up. The first death was in May, when an unidentified man was hospitalized following a suicide attempt and died a couple of days later.
In June, Billy Tucker, 32, died from a suspected suicide. On July 6, Kevin Whitford, 65, of Sanford, was found unresponsive in his cell. And on Aug. 14, an unidentified male prisoner was found unresponsive in a cell.