oxford, Maine

Jail board rejects Somerset compromise, looks to attorney general for help

by Daniel Hartill, Staff Writer Sun Journal July 24, 2012

AUGUSTA — A compromise meant to ease crowding in Maine's 15 jails failed Tuesday, extending the inmate squeeze for at least a month.

The Somerset County Jail offered to reopen part of its four-year-old facility to house 65 inmates from other county jails.

However, the offer came with a catch.

While Somerset would accept inmates from jails — as many as 65 at a time — it would refuse to accept convicts from Maine's prison system.

"We'll open those beds, but we're not taking any state inmates," Somerset County Jail administrator David Allen told the state Board of Corrections.

Such a deal would be "contrary to the law," argued Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who sits on the board.

The four-year-old law that created the board and Maine's jail system seems clear, he said.

"A correctional facility shall accept any inmate transferred to it by the Commissioner of Corrections ..." reads the statute (Title 30-A, Section 406).

It was written, in part, to ease crowding in the prisons, Ponte said. Yet, Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong insisted that he has the authority to refuse the state's inmates.

"If the state had that authority, they'd have already (used) it," he said last week. "Thank God they don't."

The Board of Corrections is consulting with a higher power. Attorney General William Schneider has assigned a lawyer to help the board define the breadth and limitations of its authority. Work will begin next month.

After the board's decision, Allen was incredulous. "They threw a win-win solution right out the door," he said.

That solution would have eased the immediate problem in Maine's jails, but it could have set a dangerous precedent of dealing away rights that belong to the state, said Mark Westrum, chairman of the Board of Corrections.

For now, the crowding will continue, said Westrum, who also serves as administrator of Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

"It's going to be another month of everyday phone calls, every hour of the day, looking for bed space," Westrum said. "I can't wait."

Somerset County has been challenging the jail authority since May, when Delong closed the door to inmates from elsewhere in the state. That closure, combined with higher-than-normal populations in several jails, led to problems across Maine.

Franklin County, which had used the Somerset County Jail in Madison to house its inmates, was forced to haul them two hours to Wiscasset or to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Aroostook County began sending some inmates from its Houlton jail to the Cumberland County Jail in Portland and even the York County Jail in Alfred, 280 miles away.

In Androscoggin County, Sheriff Guy Desjardins had nowhere to send inmates two weeks ago when the population in the Auburn jail reached an all-time high of 165.

"The system is in chaos," Westrum said.

Jeff Chute, assistant administrator of the Auburn jail, hopes the attorney general's analysis will put an end to the controversy, one way or the other.

"I think this is going to bring things to a head," he said. "Now, we're going to find out where the board's true authority lies."