Commissioners plan special meeting to discuss jail issues

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PARIS — Oxford County officials plan to meet next week for a detailed discussion of options for the future of the Oxford County Jail, including an analysis of how much it might cost for the county to resume full control of the facility.

The meeting comes on the heels of a call for a state takeover of Maine’s county jail system, proposed to legislators last week by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

In a meeting with Oxford County commissioners Tuesday, Jail Administrator Capt. Edward Quinn said he strongly disagreed with Ponte’s proposal.

“Not a complete takeover, I’ll never agree to that,” Quinn said.

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He told commissioners that Ponte’s announcement was creating morale problems for his corrections officers, who were asking him whether they would still have jobs in the next six months.

In 2009, the Oxford County Jail was downgraded to a 72-hour holding facility without on-site medical or food services as part of a statewide jail consolidation scheme that capped the amount county taxpayers pay to fund jail operations. The state is meant to pick up the excess expenses that counties do not cover.

Since consolidation, however, Oxford County, along with other jails in the state, have contended with overcrowding and the cost of  transporting inmates back and forth from other jails in the state.

Quinn said he had at least two inmates who are being housed in Oxford County beyond the 72-hour cutoff, awaiting bail or approval from a pre-trial monitoring agency.

Despite a revamped agreement in November to house prisoners in Androscoggin and Cumberland counties’ facilities, Oxford County inmates are again being sent farther away and there is no indication the trend is getting better, Quinn suggested.

Adequate funding is also becoming a serious issue, Quinn said.

Although the facility would make it through this fiscal year within its flat-funded budget, rising operating costs meant he would be forced to lay off employees if funding levels were not increased in 2015.

Commissioners voiced their own concerns about the future of the state’s jail system and Oxford County’s place within it.

Commissioner Steven Merrill noted that as many as eight county sheriffs are not seeking re-election in 2014. Their replacements might not be as amenable to working within the current system, he noted.

“We have no clue what their disposition is going to be, what their thoughts are, anything,” Merrill said. “But we had better be prepared.”

Commissioners generally agreed it was time to have a thorough discussion about what future scenarios for the jail might be possible, including bringing back a full-service facility.

“I think it’s getting to the point now that we need to know more about what we have facing us,” Merrill said.

Commissioners plan to meet with Quinn, Sheriff Wayne Gallant and the county administration at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, at the county commission office on Western Avenue in South Paris.

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