AUBURN — On his first night as a uniformed corrections officer, bosses asked John Lebel to explore a dingy nook of the old Androscoggin County Jail with his bare hand.
It was a known hiding place for contraband. And Lebel, then a tall, lanky 26-year-old, could reach farther and deeper than the other guards.
“I reached down there and what did I pull out? There were a number of hacksaw blades and two knives,” Lebel said. “And I’m going, ‘Do I really want to do this?’”
He thought hard about leaving. He returned the next day. And the next. And the next.
But 37 years later, Lebel is finally planning his own jailbreak.
In August, right after his 63rd birthday, the longtime jail administrator plans to retire. He wants to see his family more. He wants to volunteer. And he wants to leave behind the politics and pressures that go along with the job of operating a jail with more inmates and more costs for the same money.
But Lebel, a still-imposing 6-foot, 4-inch tall figure, never whines.
“Am I getting out because it’s just too much?” he said. “That’s not the reason why. I’ve been in jail for 37 years. It’s just time for someone else to come in and take it over.”
On Wednesday, he asked Androscoggin County commissioners to accept his resignation, which they did, and begin the process of naming a replacement.
His long history within the department and his universal respect — inside Androscoggin County and across Maine — will not be replaced, Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.
“I’m going to miss him,” Desjardins said. “No doubt about it.”
Despite his long career, Lebel never planned to work in corrections.
The guy who grew up on Maple Street in Lewiston attended local schools and, after it became likely that he would be drafted into the service, joined the Air Force. It was 1970. Most new servicemen were sent to Vietnam. Instead, the Air Force made him a police officer and sent him to England.
He spent four years in uniform. When he got out, he returned home and went to work for an insulation company. He quit after he developed chronic lung problems. For a few months, he moved to Arizona and volunteered for a ministry, but he missed Maine and returned home.
He used the G.I. Bill, studied for his criminal justice degree from the University of Maine at Augusta and began a work-study job inside the county jail in Auburn.
His first contact with inmates was as a kind of visitor who helped out at recreation time.
“I’d walk the hallways with the inmates and they would play guitar,” he said. “I looked like one of them. I wasn’t in uniform or anything. I was a young kid.”
After two years as a paid visitor, he became a part-time corrections officer, put on the uniform and became a target of the inmates.
The setting could be harsh. The county’s jail at the time was a two-story brick building with floor-to-ceiling bars.
Lebel arrived with little training.
“They just put you in there and you dealt with the inmates the way you dealt with them,” he said. He hadn’t been working long when one of the inmates scuffled with an officer.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Lebel said. “I just watched. There were enough guys and they were handling it. A supervisor gave me hell. He said, ‘Listen. When you see something going on, you get in there and you grab an arm or a leg.”
The inmate’s health — whether he wants it or not — demands an all-hands response, the boss said.
“Of course, then the inmates are all screaming at you, telling you that you’re not being a man,” Lebel said.
There were other scuffles. Inmates sometimes threw feces at officers. And as that jail grew more crowded, the number of suicides rose. Lebel, himself, made some of the horrific discoveries. And he withstood abuse from inmates.
“You come to the point when you become desensitized,” he said. “That’s how you deal with some of this stuff.”
Lebel became a leader among the officers. By 1986, he was promoted to captain and appointed as the jail administrator.
During his tenure, the jail changed radically.
He worked with other county leaders to lobby for a new jail, which was built in 1990. He encouraged the creation of alternative sentencing programs and pre-trial services that allow inmates to serve their time outside of the jail. And he helped develop an education program inside the new jail, which was built with three classrooms.
Some of the programs have persisted. Currently, 200 to 300 inmates per year serve sentences related to OUI by joining specially created crews doing repairs to local schools and public buildings. People have earned high school diplomas inside the jail or come up with plans for changing careers when their sentences were finished.
However, Lebel has watched the jail he helped build become overcrowded. He’s seen education programs cut amid squeezed budgets. And he’s seen increasing pressure for a state takeover of the jail system.
It has watered down part of his legacy.
“We did some really good things over the years,” Lebel said. “Now, we’re crowding the sardine cans.”
The jail was originally designed for 98 adult inmates and 12 juveniles.
The state consolidated juvenile corrections more than a decade ago, eliminating that population. Meanwhile, the adult population has soared. All three classrooms became housing areas. Single cells were doubled up with newly installed bunks.
On Thursday, the inmate population was 156. But it has been higher. The once full-time education program has fallen to five or six hours per week due to budget cuts.
“I’m just a warehouse,” Lebel said. “I don’t think that’s what people want from their jails. But that’s where we are.”
He praised the jail staff for their hard work, despite the pressure.
Lebel said he will still leave proudly when his retirement comes this summer. He knows he’s helped people.
He recently completed work on a blue ribbon commission formed to examine Maine’s system of county jails. The commission’s proposal is currently being examined by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. It is expected to shape a bill to restructure how all 15 county jails operate together.
Lebel said he’ll be happy to give up on the politics and pressure.
People have asked him about taking on jobs when he leaves the jail, but he’s not interested. He’d be willing to serve on a committee or help folks if he can. But he has his boundaries.
“I’m not planning on rejoining the workforce anywhere,” he said.