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Maine Jail Closes Doors to Out-of-County Inmates
04/02/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Some county jails are experiencing deja vu when it comes to state funding. Last week, officials at Somerset County Jail were told the state was witholding its third-quarter reimbursement payment. In response, the jail is closing its doors to certain inmates, leaving holding facilities in a bind to find beds. As Patty Wight reports, a similar issue cropped up a year ago, and many say recent jail consolidation is to blame.

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Back in 2009, Maine consolidated its county jail system to save money. Some jails closed, others were converted into
72-hour holding facilities. Prisoners are now funneled to newer, more cost-efficient jails. And those jails are reimbursed by the state for any out-of-county inmates. The new system is overseen by the Board of Corrections.

"Well in my opinion, I believe we should scratch this entire Board of Corrections thing and let the counties start determining their own fate again," says Scott Nichols, the sheriff for Franklin County. His jail is one of those 72-hour holding facilities, and right now he's scrambling to find bed space.

Usually he sends prisoners to the Somerset County Jail, but last week, the jail shut its doors to out-of-county inmates. Somerset Sheriff Barry Delong says that's because the state is witholding its third-quarter payment, worth $280,000. That, says Sheriff Delong, shifts the cost burden to his county.

"Why would the taxpayers of Somerset pay for housing, medical, meals - everything involved with these inmates - when they don't belong to Somerset County? Why would we do that?" Delong asks.

Sheriff Delong says his jail can manage just fine with payment it gets from the U.S. government for housing federal inmates - $90 a day per inmate. Compare that to about $22 a day from the state for out-of-county inmates, if it pays at all.

"Half of me says I don't want their money," Delong says.

Patty Wight: "Why?"

Sheriff Barry Delong: "Well, keep their money, keep their inmates. So I'm not going through this battle every year, because I can run this jail without state inmates."

The executive director of the Board of Corrections, Michael Tausek, says the board is witholding payment temporarily for legal reasons. Somerset County intends to use revenue from housing federal inmates to pay down the debt from building the jail in 2008.

Tausek says the board has to make sure money is being properly allocated before it distributes state funds. If everything checks out, the jail will likely be paid. But he says the board is facing a deep budget hole.

"Well, I was just looking at our numbers, and there is no doubt that the Board of Corrections investment fund will be approximately $700,000 in the red at the end of this year," Tausek says.

Fourth-quarter payments are more than $2 million. And that's why so many sheriffs say they want to go back to the way things were before consolidation, when counties were in charge of their own jails and budgets.

A bill was even introduced this session to allow the Franklin County Jail to revert from a 72-hour holding facility back into a full-fledged jail. It was rejected by the Criminal Justice Committee, but co-chair Mark Dion says it's not dead.

"Here's the challenge: There's been some valid critiques made of the State Baord of Corrections. However, it is the law, and it is the system that we have at this time," Dion says.

Dion says lawmakers have to look for modifications within the current system, and it's likely more than just a money problem - it has to do with resources, management, and authority.

"The original intent of the state Board of Corrections was to move prisoners to those facilities that could supervise and manage the population as if we were all one big jail," he says. "And now because there are problems, different counties are trying to reassert the idea that they're a stand-alone facility that can dictate when, and under what conditions, they participate in the system."

Board of Corrections Executive Director Michael Tausek says the board is motivated to make the new system sustainable.


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