A citizen group in Bangor is gearing up to fight a proposed expansion of the Penobscot County Jail, saying they think money would be better spent on housing, mental health services and substance use disorder treatments.
Doug Dunbar, a spokesman for No Penobscot County Jail Expansion, said the group sees this effort as a way to set new expectations for all correctional facilities statewide, not just the one in Bangor.
“We’re saying we are drawing a line in the sand here in Penobscot County,” Dunbar said. “It does not work. It’s expensive. It doesn’t make us safer. Not to mention that a lot of it is completely immoral.”
Although a new proposal has yet to be released by the county, the request for proposals it issued in November calls for a design that would increase capacity from the current 157 to 260, “with the ability to increase capacity to 360 by expanding the newly constructed facility.”
The renovations and expansion are necessary to deal with safety issues posed by overcrowding, a need for space to conduct therapy sessions, interviews and medical and dental exams, and counseling rooms to help reduce recidivism, according to the proposal request.
The county began exploring updates to the jail in 2017, with a committee issuing a report in 2019 calling for a new facility with an inmate capacity of 300. But after public outcry over the proposed eight-story building on the site of the former YMCA, those plans were scrapped in early 2020.
The city hired Bangor-based architects Haley Ward in January to come up with a new proposal. The firm agreed to do the work for an amount not to exceed $50,000, according to the proposal.
County Administrator Erika Honey said via email that the county is “still working with our Project Manager and don’t have anything at this point. Hopefully within the next couple of weeks we will have something to share.”
Honey did not respond to follow up questions about whether the county provided the company with any cost guidelines, how the project would be paid for and reasons the jail needs to be renovated and expanded.
Dunbar said the county plans to use some federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, but will then need voter approval to borrow the money needed to cover the rest of the cost.
Dunbar, who worked in Washington, D.C., and Augusta for former Gov. John Baldacci, is a recovering alcoholic who has said he treated his anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder with alcohol. He spent time in the Penobscot County Jail in 2017 and 2018 after his third operating under the influence conviction.
He's now an advocate for bail reform after meeting fellow inmates who were incarcerated for lengthy stays — before their convictions — because they couldn’t make bail.
He’s passionate about programs that will address the underlying reasons some people end up in jail, whether it’s a lack of stable housing, untreated mental health issues or substance use disorder.
“There are so many untried or underutilized ways in Penobscot County and in other parts of the state, and our country, to reduce the number of people in our jails,” Dunbar said. “We have invested in places to hide away people we view as problems rather than solve the actual problems.”