FARMINGTON — The Franklin County Jail has woken up from a five-year nightmare, county officials and others who deal with inmates say.

The jail reopened as a fully-functioning county jail in April after five years as a 72-hour regional holding center, a move that caused so many issues Sheriff Scott Nichols ran for office in 2012 on a platform of getting the county’s jail back.

Under the 2009 state jail consolidation plan, the idea was to house Franklin County inmates for longer periods of time at the larger Somerset County Jail in East Madison, which has the capacity for more than 230 inmates. Nichols said that what ensued was a nightmare for Franklin County over inmate transport, safety and control.

“It was chaos,” Nichols said in an interview last week. “There were times when people asked us where (an inmate) was, and we had no idea because sometimes other jails were switching with each other just to make room.”

Farmington defense attorney Walter Hanstein said housing the county’s inmates elsewhere caused huge problems for inmates and their families, including violating inmates’ constitutional rights to access to their attorney.

The transition back to a fully operational county jail has gone far better than Nichols anticipated.

The change came after the now disbanded state Board of Corrections asked the county if it was possible for the jail to reopen to ease crowding and money issues elsewhere in the system. It was a day that Nichols had been waiting for since he ran for office in 2012.

Today, the jail is run largely the same as it was before the demotion in status. After five years of having to send Franklin County inmates to jails that were often hours away from their families and attorneys, the inmates are finally being held in their home county.

“It was really a bad, bad deal for Franklin County. This is where they are from,” Nichols said. “For the sake of the families of the inmates, they had no access to their people. It also hindered their ability to have access to their attorneys.”

‘WE WERE READY’

Nichols says that in the six months since the jail reopened, the readjustment process has gone better than he could have dreamed. Because of Jail Administrator Doug Blauvelt’s meticulous upkeep of the facilities during the consolidation, the jail needed little work upon its reopening in April, he said.

The jail has since filled several positions that were cut before the consolidation, including increasing the number of corrections officers per shift from two to three. Earlier this month, Franklin County Commissioners gave the jail approval to use additional funding provided by the state to hire an assistant jail administrator to help Blauvelt oversee the daily functions that go into operating a full-status jail.

The Franklin County Jail operates under a $1.6 million budget, a funding level that was maintained before and after consolidation. When the consolidated system began, Franklin County assessed that it could operate its holding facility for about $1.1 million, shipping about $630,000 annually to the state to be dispersed through the consolidated jail system.

Franklin County had a $200,000 surplus before reopening last spring, which Nichols says was a major factor in being able to get the jail reopened.

“We were ready,” Nichols said. “Once they gave us permission to reopen, we were fortunate to have enough of a surplus to help us bring staff on and prepare the jail.”

FAR FROM HOME

Inmates and their families felt the brunt of the consolidation.

Franklin County inmates were supposed to be housed at the Somerset County jail, which is about 45 minutes away, under the plan. But in reality, Franklin County inmates were being housed at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, as well as jails in Cumberland, Androscoggin and Kennebec counties, Nichols said.

The distance from their home county violated inmate rights in many ways, Farmington defense attorney Walter Hanstein said last week. Access to their lawyers is critical for inmates, especially at trial level, he said, and it’s a right protected by the Sixth Amendment.

Hanstein handled many cases representing inmates who faced charges in Franklin County. Having clients two hours away from him under the consolidated system was a hindrance to their access to legal counsel.

“It’s much better now,” Hanstein said. “But the situation, the way it was, made it significantly more difficult for lawyers.”

Inmates’ families also felt the distance.

Now, as a fully operating jail, visiting hours are held daily. During the week, half-hour visits are available in the evenings, and on weekends the visits take place during the day. Blauvelt says the jail tries to give everyone ample opportunity to visit, knowing that separation from family has an impact on inmate anxiety levels.

But during consolidation, depending on what jail an inmate was being housed in, distance became a huge barrier to family access, Franklin officials said. For instance, for Rangeley families, a trip to the Farmington-based Franklin County Jail is a 45-minute trip. But with inmates being housed as far away as Wiscasset, the driving time tripled.

“Some of the families didn’t have the ways or the means to travel the distance to some of these places. Whether it be financial or vehicle-wise, they just didn’t have the transportation to see their family members,” Blauvelt said.

Hanstein noted another issue that arose from the crowding at county jails under the consolidation. He had several clients who had not yet been convicted of a crime who were being housed with convicted criminals in the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, a facility of the state Department of Corrections.

In 2013, Hanstein filed a motion in the case of one of these inmates, Robert Parker, requesting that his $75,000 bail be reduced to a promise to appear in court in order to remove Parker from the prison.

“This was a significant deprivation of his rights to be housed in a prison with convicted criminals,” Hanstein said.

District Judge Susan Oram denied the motion to suppress Parker’s bail, who was charged and has since been convicted of gross sexual assault against a 9-year-old girl. Oram said that the evidence presented by Hanstein was not enough to amend the bail conditions. She said that while Hanstein may have a difficult time traveling to Windham, not every lawyer would.

The following week, Hanstein filed a motion to amend the bail of another Franklin County inmate being held at a state prison facility, Roy Gordon, who had plead guilty to a class C drug charge and was awaiting sentencing. Justice Michaela Murphy denied the motion to release Gordon until sentencing, but acknowledged the difficulties that the consolidation was causing for Franklin County.

“I don’t think there is anyone in this courtroom who thinks things are working the way they are supposed to in Franklin County,” Murphy said at the time.

Hanstein said it was hard to get anyone to see the issue from the point of view of inmates and their families.

“If you go on the street and your sentence begins, ‘There is a man who is accused of sexual assault, and he is being treated in such a way,’ no matter how you finished that sentence, there is not much of a lobby for those who are charged with committing a crime,” Hanstein said. “Who cares about his work release and his family if he’s been charged or convicted of a crime?”

MUSICAL JAILS

As a fully operating jail, Franklin County is now licensed to hold sentenced inmates for up to nine months. Inmates who are at the trial level can be housed at the jail for as long as their case takes, which Blauvelt said can sometimes be up to two years.

Under the consolidated system, inmates who were yet to be sentenced were shuffled around the most, having to be retrieved from whatever county jail they were being held at and brought back to Franklin County to appear in court.

The county had to buy a second transport van and hire additional transport officers during consolidation to shuffle its inmates from Franklin County to whatever jail had room and then back for court appearances.

It was common for transport officers to be on the road 12 to 14 hours a day, county officials said.

“We had the same number of people coming in as we did when we were a full facility, but we could only keep them a limited period of time. Then we had to find a jail with an open bed and transport them somewhere,” Blauvelt said. “But they still had to come back here for court. After which, we had to turn around and take them back hopefully to the same facility from which they came from, but it was not always the case. Once you move somebody out of a bed, that bed often got filled.”

FULL PROGRAM ROSTER

The last six months have also seen the reinstatement of Franklin County Jail’s inmate programs. As a 72-hour facility, no programs were offered, but as a full-status jail, Franklin County is spending $350,000 annually to provide its inmates with access to self-help, educational, religious and crisis management programs.

The jail also has volunteers who come to conduct Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and a program called Alcohol & Chemical Treatment for inmates to participate in.

“We have a whole world right within these walls,” Blauvelt said.

Blauvelt said that some of the programs were available to Franklin County inmates at other jails during consolidation but some were not.

Most notably, the reopening of the jail allows for inmates in Franklin County to once again participate in work-release programs in which trusted inmates work outside of the jail and return upon completion of their shift. The jail also offers a worker-inmate program, which provides the opportunity for inmates to reduce their sentence if they work within the jail. Both of these programs are intended as a means of self improvement for the inmates.

With several of Maine’s counties still facing funding and crowding issues in the wake of the law the Legislature passed that reversed the consolidation, Joel Merry, the president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, acknowledged Nichols’ successful effort to pull off reopening the jail.

“I applaud Sheriff Nichols and his staff for what they have done,” Merry said. “They made the commitment to take the jail back and to do so efficiently.”

Merry notes, however, that every county is different and therefore has different problems. While Franklin County has been successful in operating independently, that isn’t necessarily the case with every county.

Merry is most concerned that the new law did not provide enough funding for jails to board inmates at other jails when their own have reached maximum capacity, creating crowding problems in counties such as Kennebec, which has a jail that was built in 1859 to house a fraction of the inmates it has now.

Nichols agrees with Merry that every county is different, but in Franklin County, he sees the consolidation reversal as a victory.

“Every county is unique. Each county knows what their problems are, whether it be financial, overcrowding, you name it,” Nichols said. “But it’s much better here now.

“If there is ever a movement to consolidate again, they will have one heck of a fight here in Franklin County.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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