Aroostook County Jail is unsafe, crowded and not secure, federal experts say

4 weeks ago

The Aroostook County Jail has skilled staff but the building has reached the end of its life and officials need to decide whether to construct a new facility, according to federal corrections experts.

National Institute of Corrections consultant Karen Albert and architect Roger Lichtman visited Caribou, Houlton and Presque Isle this week, touring the jail and hearing input at a community forum on Thursday. 

The Houlton facility, state licensed for 117 inmates, was built in 1889 and was last renovated 40 years ago. It is crowded, unsafe and lacks capacity for proper security, the assessors said. 

There are also holdups in the process of moving people out of jail, according to County Administrator Ryan Pelletier. The building wasn’t designed as a holding facility for pretrial suspects, but 90 percent of those currently housed there are awaiting trial.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — June 20, 2024 — Aroostook County Administrator Ryan D. Pelletier (left) listens during a National Institute of Corrections community forum on jail options. Also present were local law enforcement, municipal leaders and County commissioners. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

“County jails were designed and built to house people who were convicted of a crime that resulted in a sentence of nine months or less,” Pelletier said. “What’s happened over the years as things have bogged down in the court system, we have people in jail, some murder suspects, that are just waiting for their day in court.”

The situation isn’t unique to Aroostook County. The statewide backlogged court problem has led to similar circumstances at the aging Penobscot County Jail in Bangor, resulting in an ongoing debate about building a new facility.

Last year, the jail in Houlton was always at capacity, which meant the county had to find beds elsewhere in the state, and that costs money, Pelletier said. People are also staying in jail longer.

The County recently formed a nine-member task force made up of elected officials, police chiefs and county officials to look at the jail’s problems. One of its first steps was to get the National Institute of Corrections to visit and make recommendations for the jail’s future.

The institute, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Aurora, Colorado, helps federal, state and local jails with building, program planning and workforce development.

In addition to taking a good look at the physical condition of the jail, Albert and Lichtman interviewed stakeholders who spend time at the jail, such as social service agencies, district attorney’s office personnel, police and others who are part of the court system.

About 20 municipal leaders, law enforcement officers and task force members attended Thursday’s forum in Presque Isle. The consensus from law enforcement was that a new jail is needed, and so are improved community services to address mental health needs and keep people from reoffending.

“Programs are great, and we can keep pushing them, but we need a jail,” Maine State Police Lt. Brian Harris said. “We’re handcuffed because we can’t protect our communities.”

Fort Fairfield Police Chief Matthew Cummings said the county needs to stop using the jail as a mental health facility. 

“How can we deal with mental health and substance abuse?” Cummings said. “The lack of services is very evident in our county. The jail should not be a dropping point for these people.”

Aroostook County is following the national trend of jails housing people with mental health issues, Albert said. So, if the county doesn’t get more mental health beds, it will need more jail beds.

She suggested the county jail task force invite mental health, substance use, health care and other experts to talk about solutions. Jails are not just the responsibility of a sheriff, but of a community as a whole, she said. 

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — June 20, 2024 — National Institute of Corrections consultant Karen Albert writes during a community forum Thursday in Presque Isle on the Aroostook County Jail. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

Albert also suggested alternatives to incarceration, including day programs for offenders that don’t require overnight accommodations in a jail, as well as a drug court. 

A drug treatment court which could have reduced the number of inmates remains out of reach in Aroostook County. In May, $740,000 in funding to get the treatment court up and running was approved by a legislative committee. But the funding failed to materialize when the House did not consider the measure during the budget approval process in May.

Architect Lichtman briefed the group on the jail’s condition, citing fire safety issues, noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and a floor plan where staff and security officers don’t have clear sight of inmate areas.

HOULTON, Maine — June 19, 2024 — The 1889 Aroostook County Jail in downtown Houlton is always at capacity and hasn’t been renovated in 40 years. (Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli | Houlton Pioneer Times)

“The staff is doing a great job, but they are fighting that building every minute of every day,” Lichtman said. “With an 1889 building, there’s no way it can meet code, even with renovation.”

The NIC’s role is not to say whether or not the county should build a new jail, but to give local leaders data to make that decision, Albert said.  

The assessors will submit a full report to County officials likely within a couple of weeks. Pelletier said he would call a meeting of the task force to talk about next steps.

BDN reporter Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli contributed to this report.