Arrest diversions at Maine county jail are costly, but only option due to understaffing

Marshals pulled more than 40 inmates from Portland's jail in early September due to insufficient staffing


By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald, Maine

PORTLAND, Maine — Administrators at the Cumberland County Jail say they are taking extraordinary steps to try to fill dozens of vacant positions — a costly crisis that has plagued the facility for years and led to an extremely limited intake of new inmates and prompted federal authorities to remove prisoners.

Jail leaders have outlined a corrective action plan to add staff and address other deficiencies, but it's unclear yet whether that will satisfy the U.S. Marshals Service, which withdrew the federal prisoners being held by the jail under a lucrative contract.

An inmate is transported through the halls of the Cumberland County Jail. Understaffing at the jail has led to an extremely limited intake of new inmates and prompted federal authorities to remove prisoners. (Photo Cumberland Sheriff's Office)
An inmate is transported through the halls of the Cumberland County Jail. Understaffing at the jail has led to an extremely limited intake of new inmates and prompted federal authorities to remove prisoners. (Photo Cumberland Sheriff's Office) (Cumberland Maine Sheriff's Office)

The Press Herald obtained a copy of a Sept. 9 memo outlining the corrective plan through a Freedom of Access Act request. Sheriff Kevin Joyce previously refused to release the document because he said it originated with the Marshals Service. State law, however, requires governments to turn over public documents in their possession, regardless of their origin.

Marshals pulled more than 40 inmates from Portland's jail in early September following an annual audit. Federal standards require that "essential posts and positions, as identified in the staffing plan, are consistently filled with qualified personnel." The documents don't state the specific staffing deficiencies that led the Marshals Service to remove the federal prisoners.

Marshals Service Inspector Ryan Guay said the contract with Cumberland County will continue, but offered no specifics on how many officers must be hired or what steps must be taken before the federal inmates return. "The Marshals Service will maintain its partnership with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office on its corrective action plan once those standards are met," Guay wrote in an email.

The Marshals Service also asked the jail to submit plans for expanding inmate access to legal resources and the inmate grievance process, along with plans to allow prisoners in the most restrictive housing at least 1 hour of exercise outside of their cells.

Joyce has closed the jail for all but the most serious offenses, which include severe violence, domestic violence, warrants of arrest and assaults on a police officer. It means that some corrections staff who oversee the lengthy, labor-intensive intake process can work in inmate housing units.

The partial closure will continue for at least another week or two, Joyce said in a recent email. There is no time or date to resume accepting all arrests, Joyce said. And there is no option for law enforcement officers to take arrestees to another facility, according to a Sept. 27 memo sent to agencies countywide.

The jail is refusing arrests for felony property crimes, misdemeanors, driving-related crimes and probation violations — unless their underlying conviction relates to a domestic violence conviction or an act of violence against a person.

"There is no metric (for when to fully reopen), just the fact that the public has expectations of us, the police departments have expectations of us and the staff have expectations," Joyce said. "It becomes a balancing act of everyone's interest and expectations, as well as our obligations to public safety."

The corrective action plan gives a more detailed look at the steps Joyce has taken to hire more correctional officers.

Push to Hire More Officers

The county used American Rescue Plan Act money to hire a full-time recruiter for the jail, and a part-time corrections officer has been assigned to assist in wrangling new applicants. The county has invested in applicant-tracking software, has doubled hiring bonuses to $4,000 for applicants who are already certified, and maintains a $1,200 referral bonus for employees who bring in a successful applicant.

"The recruiters are very active and interact with prospective applicants seven days a week almost 24 hours a day," jail administrators wrote in their corrective action plan.

The county has begun using text messages to communicate with applicants and has increased the number of interviews by 168 percent, although it's not stated how many interviews that increase actually represents. Staff also have worked to whittle down the delay between application and interview from 20 days to 72 hours.

"There have been instances when we interviewed applicants in minutes after their initial application," jail administrators wrote in the Sept. 9 memo. "As a team we have been very aggressive with our distribution of materials and on several occasions have hand-delivered applications to folks who do not have a printer."

Early this month the jail had 87 vacancies out of 185 authorized positions, not counting employees on temporary leave. The remaining 100 or so officers are forced to work up to three overtime shifts every week, a limit recently negotiated by the correction officers' union. The jail has nearly 600 beds, but does not run at capacity.

The federal inmate contract was worth about $2.65 million, which was 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 current budget year, the federal revenue was actually projected to reach $3.2 million, according to county records. The revenue depends on the number of federal inmates and how long they are held. Joyce estimated the federal inmates brought in about $5,600 per day.

Diversions a Short-Term Fix

A union representative for corrections officers said the intake closure helps keep the pressure off the remaining corrections workers and is the only option right now without a sudden influx of new employees.

So how long can the arrest diversions continue?

"I don't have an answer," said Daren Smith, business agent for the National Correctional Employees Union, which represents most of the jail's workers. "For a short-term answer, these intake diversions help. I know they're trying, but we're just not getting enough applicants. It's a slow trickle in and a slow trickle out. We're maintaining, but we're not increasing."

Westbrook Police Chief Sean Lally said the modified arrest standards have been required off and on since COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Lally said the jail staffing is only one piece of the puzzle, and said that long-term solutions will likely require the courts, county government, the Legislature and the state to cooperate.

He said it would be unfair and ignorant to blame only the jail.

"The corrections officers are the hardest hit by all of this," Lally said. "They are constantly forced into work and barely get any time off. Corrections staff have a thankless job and they are doing the best they can. I think the focus should be on solutions and they won't come cheap."

In Scarborough, Police Chief Mark Holmquist said officers are adapting to the guidelines and have tools to work around some of the restrictions. Holmquist said he's implemented a local arrest diversion program for people charged with minor crimes and who need help finding housing, addiction treatment or mental health counseling. His staff also can take an arrestee back to the station to meet with a bail commissioner who decides the bail amount and whatever conditions are appropriate before someone may be released.

"We have learned in our profession to be flexible with policy changes and ways to conduct operations on a daily basis," Holmquist wrote in an email. "The modified intake restrictions are not a frustration, but a reality our profession is currently facing."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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