FARMINGTON — The Jay police chief said the Franklin County jail’s status as a holding center hurts his department’s investigations.

The Farmington police chief said that status stretches his staff thin when they must help at the jail.

And Christine Richards, of Strong, said as the wife of a county transport deputy and mother of a Somerset County Jail corrections officer, she worries about her husband and son’s safety.

The three were among more than 100 area residents and officials who attended a public hearing Wednesday before the state Board of Corrections, many of whom told the board that returning the Franklin County jail to full service is the morally and fiscally responsible thing to do.

A dozen attendees spoke passionately to the board in support of returning the a 72-hour holding center to its former status as a full-service county jail.

Supporters of the switch said the current status wastes time and money, compromises officer safety and removes inmates from a local support system that could reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

Town managers, selectmen, police chiefs, the three county commissioners and residents gathered at the hearing, held at the Olsen Student Center at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Sheriff Scott Nichols and other Franklin County officials have been lobbying the board to change the jail’s status since Nichols took office in January, though the complaints from the county stem back to the switch in 2009.

A state Board of Corrections working group recommended in March that the jail return to its previous status starting July 1, but the board had to hold the hearing before it can make the final decision.

After Wednesday’s hearing, anyone affected by the switch has until July 3 to submit comments to the board. The board will make a final decision by Sept. 10.

Chairman Mark Westrum asked the public to have patience and understand the members are making a “heavy decision” over whether the switch is best not just for the county, but for the entire unified jail system.

He said board members are most concerned about making a decision that would support inmates and reduce reoffending rather than warehousing them.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about the people,” he said.

The committee recommendation was also contingent on a report from jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt saying he could operate the jail in the coming fiscal year for $1.59 million, which is less than the $1,621,201 tax cap set by the 2008 jail consolidation law, which also changed the jails in Waldo and Oxford counties to holding centers. Board members had expressed concern that Franklin County officials wouldn’t be able to operate their jail under the capped amount they are allowed to raise by taxes. Board members also said they would need to research the effect the loss of the jail would have on the system as a whole.

As a 72-hour holding center, the jail has been operating at about $1.1 million per year. The county raises the capped amount each year through taxes and the extra $500,000 is dispersed by the state to other jails, mainly Somerset County, for holding prisoners that need to be held past the 72-hour limit.

Attorney Walter Hanstein, who spoke on behalf of the Franklin County Bar Association, said the jail’s status as a holding center possibly violates inmates’ equal protection rights. He said under the law, all inmates should receive the same treatment, but compared to other counties, Franklin County inmates do not have the same opportunities for work release, have less access to their attorneys and are removed from their families.

“It’s no way to run a justice system,” Hanstein said.

Jay Police Chief Larry White said housing inmates farther away hurts the department’s ability to investigate to the point it affects the outcome of cases. White said the additional distance makes their investigations take more time, and when it takes longer to investigate a crime, people’s stories change and information is lost or forgotten.

Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck said his officers have had to assist the jail when it is short on staff because of its reduced status, which takes away resources from his small department.

Jay Town Manager Ruth Cushman said while people may not have sympathy for disrupting the life of an inmate, they should at least sympathize with the family and friends of inmates whose lives are significantly disrupted by the additional distance if they decide to visit in an effort to be supportive.

Cushman said inmates on work release had helped the town for years with maintenance duties, and one time a group of inmates came to her office and thanked her for the opportunity.

Richards, of Strong, said as the wife of a county transport deputy and the mother of Somerset County corrections officer, she is worried that the system stretches staff thin to the point it compromises their safety.

“I worry about safety every day,” she said.

Richards said she also has a brother who struggles with an opiate addiction and who has been previously incarcerated, and she said the current system does not provide the support he needs.

She said while he was in jail outside of the county, it was difficult for family members and nearly impossible for the pastor to visit and offer support. His one box of belongings was temporarily lost in the shuffle between jails, and she said the distance hurt the ability to maintain a support system to help prevent him from relapsing and being re-incarcerated.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
[email protected]

 

 

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