More than two dozen corrections officers at the Cumberland County Jail packed a county commissioners meeting Monday night to deliver a message: The jail is understaffed, and the safety of inmates and officers is now at risk.
Members of Local 110 of the National Correctional Employees Union told the five-member board that low pay and difficult working conditions have made the county jail uncompetitive with private companies and other law enforcement agencies as fewer correction officers are being forced to do the job of multiple people in an unforgiving environment.
In turn, the commissioners delivered their own message: We are concerned about the jail, too, but this is a statewide issue that requires action by legislators in Augusta.
Indeed, administrators in eight Maine counties are scrambling to plug roughly $2.92 million in jail budget shortfalls after the State Board of Corrections was dismantled by the LePage administration in 2015, leaving the state funding mechanism for jails in disarray.
The only long-term fix would require concerted action by legislators to change state law to fund jails differently.
“You also need to take that message to your state Legislature, because this is largely a funding problem from Augusta and a lack of funds that are available,” said Commissioner Neil D. Jamieson Jr., who joined each of his colleagues to frame the issue in the larger, statewide context. “Use that passion and go to your state legislators.”
The officers’ call to action comes amid ongoing contract negotiations between the union and the county that are headed to mediation, said Dennis Welch, the Local 110 president. The jail guards’ last employment contract ended in June.
“The working conditions are so bad that we’re losing good corrections officers going anywhere they can just to get out of there,” Welch said. “The pay is really low for what we do. You can be a security guard at a hospital, and you can pretty much make what I make, and I’ve been there 28 years.”
As of Monday, there were 20 vacancies for correction officers out of about 130 positions, the lion’s share of the roughly 190 people who work at the jail, according to county records.
Starting pay for a corrections officer is $17.75 per hour, but the compensation package also includes stipends and incremental pay bumps for earning college degrees and for years of service.
The county also offers generous health insurance that covers up to 80 percent of costs for families and 100 percent of costs for individuals.
One result of the shortfall has been a change in staffing protocol implemented in 2016 that allows a housing unit of up to 86 inmates to be staffed by a single corrections officer, down from two.
County Manager Peter Crichton declined to discuss the negotiations, but said they have centered on money. He said the corrections officers in Cumberland County now are the highest paid of any county in the state.
He also pointed to the facility’s repeated accreditation by the American Corrections Association as evidence of the high standards there.
Crichton also said that at most, only a portion of the 86 inmates in a housing unit are allowed to circulate outside their cells at one time, a standard practice around the country called a split-tier lockdown.
“It’s a way to try and have the jail be more cost-efficient, and at the same time still do it in a safe manner,” Crichton said.
At the root of the jail funding crisis is the 2007 plan by then-Gov. John Baldacci to consolidate jails under the authority of the State Board of Corrections, freeing counties from having to undertake costly jail expansion projects.
The move also capped at 2009 levels what county residents paid via property tax to support jails.
But the program failed to live up to its billing, weighed down time and again by disputes over money, authority and performance.
By early 2015, Gov. Paul LePage had announced he would not fill vacancies on the board, rendering it unable to take any action.
While control of the jails returned to the counties, county officials are still operating under the property tax cap that existed when the State Board of Corrections was active, and they look to state appropriations to help fund operations.
The increased ratio of inmates to staff has put more stress on officers, who now must often call for backup from another part of the jail if they need it, union members said. They said the reduction also makes it more difficult for officers to watch inmates and defuse conflicts while also keeping an eye on the dozens of civilian medical staff, court workers and others who flow in and out of the facility every day.
Among the outsiders who frequent the jail are attorneys visiting their clients.
In a March 9 letter to Sheriff Kevin Joyce, Amy T. Robidas, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the shortage of corrections officers has meant longer waiting times for attorneys who must go to the jail to see their clients.
“For those clients who privately retain lawyers, they are paying for their lawyers to wait,” Robidas wrote. “And for those clients with court-appointed lawyers, the cost is borne by the state and the taxpayers.”
According to the National Institute of Corrections, an agency inside the U.S. Department of Justice, there are no standard guidelines for inmate-to-correction officer ratios.
There are too many variables between facilities, including each facility’s physical design, the expected level of security, the amount of programs and activities offered and how local statutes play into staffing levels.
Joyce, who is not party to the union negotiations but oversees jail operations, has allowed the guards to grow beards and wear their shirts untucked in protest of working without a contract, and in a letter to the commissioners, supported changing the retirement package for corrections officers to make the job more attractive.
In a statement to the commissioners Monday, Joyce said the problem of hiring and retaining corrections officers has remained persistent, despite county employees’ attending an unprecedented number of job fairs in recent months in an effort to recruit.
“We’re not seeing the applicants come in, whether it’s law enforcement or corrections,” Joyce said. “The minute we start lowering our standards, the professionalism goes. These folks are professional because they went through a professional hiring (process).”
Kennebec Journal Jessica Lowell contributed to this report.