AUGUSTA — While plans to expand the Kennebec County Correctional Facility have been completed and have been put out to bid, county officials say the project won’t solve the problem of housing inmates here who are charged with increasingly serious crimes.

“We can’t say no when someone needs to go to jail,” Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon said.

To control the size of the inmate population and to house those who require it, county officials have already adopted a number of measures, including adding cots and bunks to common areas to accommodate more inmates.

In 2015, when the overcrowding reached a crisis point, then-Sheriff Randall Liberty requested local police departments to limit arrests to ease the burden on the jail and its staff.

County officials have also signed agreements to board inmates at other jails, specifically, the Cumberland County Jail and Two Bridges Jail in Wiscasset, with whom they signed a boarding agreement in August.

As of Friday, 41 inmates were boarded in those two facilities, but that’s only a fraction of the people currently under the supervision of Kennebec County.

The jail’s capacity is 147, but on Friday the population was 171. Maine Pretrial Services monitors about 120 more people outside the jail.

“That’s more than 300 people,” Kennebec County Administrator Robert Devlin said at last week’s Kennebec County commissioners meeting.

While the final cost of the construction project won’t be known until the bid is awarded some time in November, it’s expected to be around $250,000. That’s money that’s already been saved in the jail’s capital improvement fund.

Devlin said the project will reduce the impact of boarding inmates, which could cost $900,000 to $1 million this fiscal year, an amount roughly equivalent to one-sixth of the county’s $5.9 million corrections budget.

“We have surplus funds, and we could go to the Legislature for additional funding,” Devlin said. “We’ve always balanced our budget. We have never gone into the red, but that could change this year.”

As designed, the expansion will convert the jail’s indoor recreation area into a two-story direct-supervision space for male inmates with a common area on the lower level and 21 beds for inmates on the upper level. That will bring the jail’s capacity to 168.

The construction schedule calls for the bids to be opened in October and for a contractor to be identified by the end of November. Construction is expected to be completed by spring.

After this project, the jail, which is in Augusta’s historic district, doesn’t offer many more options for expansion.

“We’re limited on where we can go,” Reardon said. The building footprint can’t be extended past the expansion completed a little more than two decades ago, and its height is limited to four stories. While the expansion was designed so that building could take place over the sally port, it’s cost prohibitive, he said because it would include moving the building’s systems like heating, ventilation and air conditioning and plumbing.

County officials have entertained another option. Devlin said plans were completed in 2008 for a minimum security jail for 50 inmates with a $5 million price tag.

“We looked at different locations and were in discussions over property,” Devlin said, but that’s when the state Board of Corrections was created as part of a jail consolidation plan and the county’s plan was shelved.

The goal of jail consolidation was to help Maine address an acute shortage of prison beds while also providing property tax relief to residents. Funding for jail operations was to be divided between county property taxes — which were capped at 2009 levels — and the state, which would pay for budget increases. Local taxpayers would still pay for most of the jail operations. Counties set their own jail budgets, but the board’s allocations to each jail depended on how much the Legislature made available.

In 2015, Gov. Paul LePage effectively ended the board when he refused to fill three vacancies, leaving it unable to act. He also said he didn’t want to provide emergency funding to meet a projected $2.5 million budget gap. Earlier this year, however, legislators overrode LePage’s veto of $2.4 million in funding for the state’s jails for the next two years. Kennebec County is one of the counties identified as priorities for that funding.

Even with the promise of additional funding, Reardon said overcrowding has created stresses for inmates and corrections officers alike.

“The vast majority of inmates are here for substance abuse and drug trafficking,” he said. “They are A and B felonies for which they are not getting out of jail. With the amount and level of crime, these are not the people who will qualify for a furlough.”

Because of the increasing seriousness of the crimes committed in the county, he said, he doesn’t see the inmate population dropping to the point where it becomes manageable in the jail.

“At some point,” he said, “there needs to be a long-term conversation on where the county and state are going.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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