AUBURN — The Androscoggin County Jail hit its highest-ever population this week, crowding more than 160 inmates into cellblocks designed to hold about 90 people.
It's not the only jail facing crowding. The Cumberland County Jail and Two Bridges Regional Jail, which serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, are also nearing their limits.
On Thursday, the Androscoggin jail's population surged to 165, five beyond the 160-inmate capacity authorized by the Maine Department of Corrections. On Friday that number dipped to about 155, but with weather forecasters looking for a hot and sunny weekend, jail officials are bracing for a busy weekend with lots of local arrests, Sheriff Guy Desjardins said.
The weather is also exacerbating the building's cooling problems. The cooling system has been handicapped for about a month.
A replacement compressor was installed Monday on the jail roof, but the compressor has been idle. Hard-to-find pumps were needed. Then, a starter malfunctioned. On Friday afternoon, the cooling system began functioning but only at partial power.
Temperatures inside the cinder-block jail had risen to about 85 degrees, Desjardins said.
"It's the perfect storm," he said. "Both things are hitting us at the same time."
Desjardins didn't know when final repairs to the cooling system would be completed. Meanwhile, he and his staff were working on the crowding.
Jail officials have alerted the Maine DOC to the population surge. They've been looking for empty beds in other jails. They've also asked the Oxford County Jail, which is a 72-hour holding facility, to keep its inmates until at least Tuesday before transporting them to the Androscoggin County Jail.
"We don't have any place to put them," Desjardins said. "It's a nightmare."
Some inmate cells, which were originally designed for only one person, have been crowded with three.
Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce said his jail is just 20 shy of its 470-inmate capacity. He is being squeezed by both a high number of inmates and a shortage of jail guards. He has at least 10 openings, he said.
Mark Westrum, administrator of the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, said he wished he could help, but his facility is "full to the brim."
"We just don't have room," he said. "I hate like heck to say no to Androscoggin."
His capacity is 174 inmates, he said. But on Friday, the population hit 183. The last time the population surged so high, one of his corrections officers was attacked from behind by an inmate and assaulted.
"He was bruised up pretty good," Westrum said. Two other officers were hurt in the scuffle.
He blamed crowding. And he does not add inmates when he can help it, he said.
"I'm not going to put my officers in harm's way," he said.
Part of the problem is Somerset County leaders' decision to shut down part of their jail in Madison. Commissioners there argued that the state was reimbursing too little of the inmate costs. It costs less to keep a section closed, they said.
However, the beds are needed, argued Westrum, who serves as chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections.
The board might challenge Somerset County's decision, forcing the county to reopen the full jail, he said.
It's forced some ridiculous moves, Westrum said. In May, Somerset stopped taking Franklin County inmates, forcing deputies to take their prisoners to the Wiscasset jail.
Such moves must stop, he said.
"We're not in crisis yet," he said. "We're certainly in chaos."