Somerset County officials said Wednesday that a fourth housing pod at the East Madison jail will reopen soon to accommodate the arrival of out-of-county inmates, possibly solving a space shortage that has threatened the operations of local jails.

Franklin County inmates will once again be housed at the Somerset County Jail in East Madison following a year-long lawsuit against the Maine Board of Corrections and public outcry from Franklin officials. The corrections board and Somerset County came to an accord at the April 15 at a Board of Corrections meeting, said Ryan Thornell, executive director for the board.

Thornell said it is important to bring the Somerset County Jail back into the fold of the state’s county jail system to help with a bed space shortage.

Somerset County Administrator Dawn DiBlasi said her position in meetings with the Board of Corrections has been that the state has run out of space to house out-of-county county prisoners and Somerset County couldn’t take any more because it was not being paid for housing the inmates.

“My argument was let’s get this done,” DiBlasi said. “For the sake of the greater good, we need to start taking prisoners again and we need to be part of the system again.”

The Somerset County Jail, which has a maximum capacity of 234 inmates, is now housing 24 inmates from Franklin County.

Under the agreement, the state pays Somerset County some of the withheld money and the jail opens a new pod to accept Franklin County inmates housed elsewhere.

“It met both Somerset County’s needs and the Board of Corrections needs for bed space,” he said.

The Board of Corrections had been withholding state money from Somerset County, acting on legal advice that the county was misusing federal money. The state money was to compensate Somerset County for housing Franklin County inmates, and so when the money stopped, Somerset County shut its doors to boarding inmates, including those from Franklin County.

That forced the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, already unhappy with driving inmates from Farmington to the East Madison jail, to drive thousands of extra miles taking inmates to more distant jails or the state prison in Windham. Franklin County sheriff’s staff said such travel was time consuming and wasteful.

The Legislature has initially approved a bill that would allow Somerset County to use boarding revenue to pay down jail debt. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the state House of Representatives and the Senate, and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Paul LePage. Thornell said that the new legislation might end up nullifying the lawsuit filed by Somerset County against the state.

OUT OF SPACE

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols said now that inmates will be returned to Somerset County, his department will have lower transportation costs. The county has been driving up to 1,000 miles per week to transport inmates between out-of-county jails and to their court dates in Farmington.

“We’ve been driving from extreme south as far as Windham and as far north to Piscataquis County and of course as far east as Two Bridges,” he said.

He said the move will also take pressure off of the other jails and the Windham prison that have been taking prisoners when they weren’t intended to have Franklin County boarding inmates.

Even so, Nichols said the situation still does not fix all the problems created by the 2008 jail consolidation law that reduced the Franklin County Jail to a 72-hour holding center and required the county to house its inmates elsewhere. The Franklin County Jail previously housed an average of 28 inmates each day, but currently houses about a quarter of that.

The county still pays $600,000 annually to hold its inmates out of county, while jail beds remain empty. Transportation deputies still have to drive 30 miles to fetch inmates from the East Madison jail instead of down the road to the courthouse.

Nichols said the jail agreement is “the second best option.” “Obviously, I would prefer to have my jail back,” he said.

Capt. Marsha Alexander, jail administrator for the Kennebec County jail in Augusta, said it has accepted about four or six inmates at a time. While the Kennebec County jail has not housed a high concentration of boarding inmates, she said that the jail system as a whole will be helped as the new pod opens up in Somerset County.

“As the inmates are returned, it will slowly open back up the bed space and alleviate a lot of our space issues,” she said.

Along with decreasing travel time and opening up beds, the move will take inmates who have been awaiting trial while in prison and put them in a county jail. Residents from somewhere other than Franklin County are only sent to prison if convicted of a serious crime with a sentence longer than nine months. County jails are for inmates who have not been able to make bail while their case is pending or are serving lesser sentences.

However, when Somerset County stopped taking inmates and the other jails began running out of room, Franklin County pre-trial inmates — people not yet convicted of crimes — were frequently housed at the state prison, which several Franklin County attorneys have called a human rights violation.

Attorney Walter Hanstein of Farmington had challenged the jail consolidation as unconstitutional in a court motion that was denied. Hanstein said at the time that it was offensive and a rights violation to house a defendant who couldn’t make bail with more violent criminals when he has not been convicted of a crime, and could be found not guilty or given a short jail sentence.

He said Wednesday that Somerset County opening its doors to Franklin County inmates would not fix the system, but would be an improvement.

“They’re no longer in the prison, which was the part of the thing that was so offensive,” he said. “It’s better for lawyers and clients, as far as for their attorney client relationship. In a perfect world, they would be held here where the court is like any other county in the state.”

SOMERSET COSTS

Meanwhile, Somerset County is slated receive nearly $257,000 from the Board of Corrections investment fund as payment for the third quarter of 2014 as part of the recent agreement. The state corrections board also released full fourth quarter 2014 payment of about $280,400 from the investment fund.

The county also will receive about $235,000 in supplemental start up money for the first and second quarters of 2014 to eventually open the fourth pod at the East Madison jail, according to DiBlasi, the county administrator.

Sheriff Barry DeLong closed the pod in May 2012 in protest of the state’s non-payment of agreed-upon quarterly payments.

“We were owed the third-quarter payments for 2013, which we got — but the $235,000 is to help us be able to take those Franklin County prisoners,” DiBlasi said. “That’s going to help us a lot to get back up and running and be able to take inmates regularly and get back in the system — they need us, we need them.”

DiBlasi said the agreement with the state board will mean Somerset County will not have to come up with additional money through taxes to supplement jail operations, which was a looming threat when state quarterly payments stopped coming in.

Dale Lancaster, chief deputy for the Somerset County Sheriff’s Department, said the agreement with the state and the $257,000 calls for a return of 30 out-of-county prisoners. He said the jail population will increase slowly, based on staffing and human resource levels.

“We will have to assess our staffing; it’s paramount that staff is safe and inmates are safe,” Lancaster said. “So we’re going to have to evaluate where we are before we can proceed with who we have to hire for a staffing package that will adequately provide safety for the inmates and guards that are inside.”

He said the Somerset County Jail has 17 open positions for corrections officers.

Lancaster said state money owed to the jail also was withheld for the third and fourth quarter of fiscal year 2012-13 because the state insisted Somerset County could not use money from boarding federal inmates. The county filed a lawsuit and prevailed in court, but an appeal by the state still is pending.

The recent jail legislation — L.D. 1824 — calls on the state to pay the quarterly payments to the county under a compromise solution that allows the county to keep 75 percent of its federal boarding revenue — above costs of housing an inmate — to be used to pay down the jail debt. The rest — 25 percent — will go into a state Board of Corrections capital improvement fund.

“We said, that’s fine — that’s really all we wanted,” DiBlasi said. “We wanted the taxpayers to get that money. That was the goal.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 kschroeder@centralmaine.comDoug Harlow — 612-2367 dharlow@centralmaine.com Twitter: @Doug_Harlow