Oxford County feeling jail space crunch

by Peter McGuire, Staff Writer Sun Journal Jan. 30, 2014

PARIS — Oxford County inmates are again being housed at jails more than an hour away from the county jail in Paris, despite a multi-county agreement to keep inmates closer to home.

A decrease in the number of available beds for inmates for Oxford County is partially due to an influx of prisoners whose jail sentences were stayed until after the holidays, Capt. Edward Quinn, the Oxford County Jail administrator, said.

Oxford County Jail
The Oxford County Jail is taking its longer-term prisoners to facilities farther away due to an influx of inmates at jails closer to Paris.                                      Peter McGuire/Sun Journal

"We get our influx too," he said. "People who went to court in December for sentencing were given till January to show up ... so probably the rest of the jails are experiencing the same thing."

In 2009, Oxford County Jail was downgraded to a 72-hour holding facility without on-site medical or food services as part of a statewide jail consolidation scheme.

According to Quinn, in the past month the jail sent an inmate to Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset — a 120-mile round trip from Paris — and two inmates to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham — an 86-mile round trip — because its partner jails in neighboring counties do not have bed space. 

In November, sheriffs from Kennebec, Cumberland, Androscoggin Oxford and York counties revamped an agreement to limit how far inmates would need to be transported. Cumberland County Jail in Portland agreed to take some long-term prisoners, while short-term prisoners and those awaiting trial or sentencing can be housed at Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.

Quinn said that a post-holiday high prisoner intake was taken into account when the sheriffs restored their arrangement.

"We know from experience that during those times with stays until after the holidays and things like that, we would find wrinkles in the system," Quinn said.

This is far from the first time Oxford County has struggled to find housing for its inmates, and getting prisoners a bed somewhere in the state is a "continuous, everyday shuffle," Quinn said.

Still, for Oxford County at least, the system appears to be working better than it did six months ago, he said.  

The situation may be eased if the Maine Legislature approves money to overcome a budget shortfall at the Maine Board of Corrections that might leave jails struggling to maintain operations, Quinn said.

Even though his jail has been able to house some prisoners at Cumberland County, the sheer influx of prisoners has overwhelmed his facility, Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.

"Right now, we're in worse shape than we were in October-November," Desjardins said.

The jail has 162 inmates, two more than its capacity, he said. Most are being housed before a trial or sentencing, he said, not due to a stay of their sentence.

"Ed (Quinn) calls every day," he said. "If we can get below 150 inmates, we'll take his inmates, anything above that, we've got to keep it open for prisoners from Lewiston or Auburn."

Desjardins said the jail hasn't had fewer than 157 prisoners in at least the past two weeks. He predicted that the only relief to the bed crunch would come when the Somerset County Jail and Maine Board of Corrections settle a legal dispute that closes it to other counties.

Until then, Desjardins was pessimistic about the shape of the state's jail system, especially if the Legislature does not provide additional funding for the jails. He predicted Androscoggin County would run out of money by April, several months earlier than the date predicted by Androscoggin County commissioners this week.

"I don't know what the solution is, other than ponying up the money," he said. "The system is going to collapse if someone doesn't do something. There's no question about it."