Two years ago, Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset was a shadow of its former flagship self. One person, Administrator Mark Westrum, was trying to do almost everything, from placing inmates in post-incarceration halfway houses to answering the door and the telephone. The reason was money. The jail relied largely on the state to meet most of its operating expenses, and staff such as a receptionist or social worker were no longer in the budget as the state tried to keep a lid on county jail expenses.
“We’ve been working very, very hard not to be dependent on state funding,” said new administrator James Bailey.
TBRJ relies on other counties that rely on state funding, but the biggest issues the jail faced two years ago have improved.
Back then, the jails still fell under the state's unstaffed Board of Corrections, formed in 2008 to consolidate jails under state authority, give the counties control over part of their budget, and cap property taxes that go to jail funding. Because this was expected to create a financial hardship to the jails, the Legislature also granted the county jails a total of $2.4 million annually to make up for what was expected to be the difference in revenues.
Most of the counties – those with overcrowding issues or small jails – got the lion’s share to place inmates in other jails, and for receiving jails like Two Bridges, the funds never kept pace with the additional costs even in the best of times, when the jail got $60 to $70 per inmate, per night.
At some point, the BOC decided receiving jails should be able to accept inmates for about $23 per night, reasoning that overhead costs would be the same whether there was one inmate or 200 in a jail, and only the costs that could be attributed to individuals, such as food, medicine, and uniforms, should be reimbursed.
TBRJ bowed out of providing that service. Sheriff Todd Brackett said it would cost more than that to house inmates with varying mental, medical and behavioral health needs. He said it would be unfair to ask the taxpayers of Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties to pick up the slack.
The jails were also given authority over 30 percent of their budgets, but the portions allocated were the things the jails couldn’t control – things like fuel and food. According to Scott Ferguson, then-service center director at the Department of Corrections, it was not helpful to give the jails control over costs they could not control.
State funding fell short for several years, and the cost of providing the jail service kept increasing, well beyond what counties could increase property taxes to cover. In 2016, the cost to run the county jails was about $83 million annually, but the county jails, statewide, could only raise about $61 million from property taxes. The $12.4 million in state funding left a gap of more than $9 million.
The state repealed consolidation as a policy in 2016. TBRJ never received much of the $12 million because it wasn’t in dire need, according to the state. It had space in its facility and by cutting personnel to the bone, the jail was managing to pay its bills, or just about. The jails that received the money were the ones with serious overcrowding issues, and older jails that badly needed renovation or risked their accreditation. Receiving jails, like TBRJ and Cumberland County, have been largely ignoring the spirit of the law and following the letter. The law forbade per diem spending between jails, but didn’t, significantly, forbid contracts between jails, or trading services, such as one county providing transportation while the other provides room and board.
After consolidation ended, TBRJ developed contracts with multiple jails, including Waldo, Oxford and Penobscot, and federal prisons, as well as the state prison system. For a time, TBRJ also had a contract with Kennebec County, while it was suffering extreme overcrowding, and Androscoggin, while it was building an addition to its facility. Knox County, too, sent inmates to Two Bridges.
While Two Bridges receives a modest state subsidy, the sending jails that contract with Two Bridges rely heavily on state subsidies. The state had not passed a jail budget until a special legislative session this summer, and at least one of the contracted county jails did not feel it could commit to a longer term contract until the state funding issue was resolved. On June 20, the $12.4 million budget was passed, but not a supplemental $6 million. That request was sent to the Appropriations table, and has not yet passed.
Today, the jail, once close to shutting down all of its programs, offers diversion programs that affect all the contracted counties: Addiction Resource Center support for inmates suffering from addiction, programs to teach work skills, such as woodworking and gardening, and more. The jail also started a program to train shelter dogs basic obedience skills, and Bailey hopes to expand all those programs.
However, Brackett cautioned that all these programs take funding. Of the supplemental funding, if it passed, Two Bridges would receive $194,000 of its more than $7 million budget directly from the state, according to legislative documents. The jail’s recently approved budget does not reflect that, because when it was approved, no supplemental funding or, indeed, any funding, had been approved by the Legislature, so the jail showed a deficit budget for FY 2018-19 of - $352,116. Also missing from the revenues the jail could show was the boarding of Penobscot County inmates.
Lincoln County’s contract with Addiction Resource Center is about half the jail’s expected supplemental award, and has been money well spent, according to Brackett and Bailey. Bailey said recidivism is down, which he credits to ARC and the Sheriff’s Office’s diversion programs. Some of the funds for ARC come from the county, and some from the jail. But both the county portion and the jail’s impact Lincoln County’s inmate population, which is at historic lows this year, at an average of 29 inmates per night from Lincoln County. Sagadahoc, the main partner in the jail, had an average inmate population of 31 per night. Oxford, 34; Waldo, 31; Penobscot, 24; and Knox, five. There were occasional federal inmates, as well.
The jail is primarily funded with revenue from the sending counties and the tax commitment from Sagadahoc and Lincoln counties. According to the jail’s recent budget, Waldo and Oxford counties, together, have contracts that are about $1.8 million, and Penobscot, once the state provides it the subsidy, will be about $790,000. Federal prisoners bring in about $40,000, and other jail boarding, last year, was $281,000, but can’t be relied on because it is not subject to an annual or biannual contract. Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties pay about $2.4 million each, with Lincoln paying a little less than Sagadahoc, but a portion of that has to pay back the bond for the building of the jail.
In addition, food costs have been rising, costs that cannot be avoided, Brackett said. Medical costs are up, although newer contracts with the sending jails will include those jails paying for medical costs for their own inmates. Expected costs for energy have decreased overall, since the jail has renovated its air exchange system and has an electricity contract that is costing less than anticipated, but the cost of fuel oil per gallon has gone up. While this year’s budget will show a decrease, if fuel costs continue to climb, those efficiencies won’t offset the increases in medical and food costs after this year.
Creative accounting has been the jail’s saving grace. TBRJ’s authority had elected to show a deficit budget for FY 18-19, even though it is unlikely the jail will be fully staffed in the fiscal year, and there will be funds to pay the bills that would have gone to salaries and benefits.
Bailey is hopeful he will increase his staffing, although he said he doesn’t expect full staffing. He was able to raise pay, which helped somewhat with retention, since many employees were being drawn away to jails that paid better. He was permitted to hold an Academy for potential corrections employees this year, and of those, he may be able to retain three new guards. He was also able to replace the administrative staffer who deals with the public, both on the phone and in person, and has people to help place inmates in halfway programs. Some inmates are doing community service, which helps bring them out into the real world and gives them work experience beyond the jail walls, he said.
While Two Bridges has a way to go to get back to its early promise of providing full programs, Bailey said he is confident the jail system has corrected its course. “Back when the jail was new, there was not the opioid crisis we see today. That has to be addressed, and we are addressing it. Soon, I hope, we can go back to providing all the services we dreamed about at the beginning.”