Joel Merry looks little like the imposing and and beefy stereotype of a jail boss. But last month, following passage of a new law governing the way Maine’s 15 jails are woven together as a network, the soft-spoken sheriff from Sagadahoc County was elected as chairman of the Maine Board of Corrections. The Sun Journal wanted to learn more about the guy charged with unifying county corrections across the state.

Name: Joel Merry

Age: 56

Hometown: The Somerset County town of Norridgewock

Single, relationship or married? Married to wife, Donna, for 35 years

Children? I have two adult children. My daughter, Jennifer, is the director of curriculum and school programming for the May Institute, a nonprofit school for autistic children in Randolph, Mass. My son, Jonathan, is a chef by trade, but he now operates a small farm in Dresden and has become very involved in farm-to-table and local farmers markets.

Before your election as Sagadahoc County sheriff, you were a Bath police officer. Why did you enter law enforcement? Like everybody else, I wanted to help people. As a teenager growing up in a small town, I became attracted to the thought of becoming a police officer as I observed local state troopers work in the area. And, it would give me an opportunity to drive a car real fast.

In most cases, police officers don’t spend much time in jails after they book the bad guys. How did you learn about the way jails work? Interestingly enough, my very first job in law enforcement was an internship I did at Somerset County Jail while in college. It was 1976, and Sheriff Francis Henderson brought me on to work in the office and jail. It was an eye-opening experience for an 18 year old. From there I also did some dispatching, so my roots in law enforcement have given me some broad exposure to the different aspects.

Have you ever spent the night in a jail? Not that I can remember!

Several Maine jails are overcrowded. How many inmates is too many? There are so many ways to look at this. Is it when we can’t find a bed for an inmate? Is it when we need special management cells and there are none? Does everyone who is currently locked up really need to be there? Do we have people locked up for the safety of the community or because they owe the state a fine? Should we be locking up people with severe mental health issues or chronic substance abuse issues? Perhaps if we thoughtfully and strategically answered these questions, we wouldn’t have overcrowded jails.

The job of Board of Corrections chairman has proven to be time consuming and stressful. Do you have any hints for being either more efficient or less stressed? I’ve needed to update my Outlook (calendar) on a daily basis to keep up with all the meetings. My idea is to surround myself with good, hardworking, committed individuals that are goal driven, and then to trust them. I am also not interested in hearing how one situation is worse than another. We are all in this together, so every decision the BOC makes should be weighed against its impact on the entire system.

Corrections has a reputation for being a low priority among politicians. Are they missing something? Well, as a former governor once quipped, corrections doesn’t have a very good alumni association. I would also suggest that they don’t represent much of a voting bloc, so why should politicians pay attention? However, I have found county jails to be a source of pride to county government. I believe communities want to feel that their jail is being run properly and efficiently.

Your job is unifying Maine’s jails. Yet, critics say the statewide network of county jails cannot work. What do you tell them? Until very recently, I was one of those critics. However, never underestimate what a handful of committed individuals can accomplish. With recent legislative changes, we now have a new way of doing business. Will it work? I don’t know. The good thing for me is that not many people remember the name of the captain of the Titanic.


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