AUGUSTA — Kennebec County officials are considering converting open space at the county jail to create nearly 40 new bunks to hold an overflow of inmates the jail has dealt with since this summer.

A new state law made it too expensive to board inmates in jails in other counties, officials say.

Kennebec County Chief Deputy Ryan Reardon said the plan is still in its preliminary stages, but it would include converting indoor public space and some maintenance areas into new bed space for inmates.

Reardon said the jail is gathering quotes from contractors and working with the Maine Department of Corrections on getting approval for the possible conversion. He could not give an estimate of the cost.

The additional bed space is needed because of a state law passed this summer that reversed the state’s consolidation of the jail system. The law transferred authority for the jails from the State Board of Corrections, which was disbanded, to individual county sheriffs. It included a $12.2 million payment from the Department of Corrections to local jails to balance operating budgets.

The problem is that the state funding was not enough to cover the cost of boarding prisoners in other jails when a jail has reached capacity, Reardon said.

Earlier this year, the county estimated that boarding inmates at the current level could cost $1.6 million, Reardon said. So instead, the county looked at using reserve money to create permanent bed space in the jail.

“The cost of boarding inmates is really not a cost I want to pass on to taxpayers of Kennebec County,” Reardon said.

“The ideal situation is for us to think outside the box and retrofit and pay a small amount to get bunks and get approval from the Department of Corrections rather than board out inmates,” he added.

CASH CRUNCH

Under the consolidated jail system of the past several years, if jails in the state’s 16 counties were over capacity, inmates were sent to available bunks outside the county and funding for those inmates was covered by the system.

Under the new law, county jails can bill up to $108 a day to house each inmate sent to them from another county, as long as the full state funding hasn’t been disbursed that year.

But in years when the funding has been given out, like this year, jails aren’t allowed to charge for housing. That creates a difficult situation, said Joel Merry, the Sagadahoc County sheriff and president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association.

Jails can’t charge a per-day cost for housing inmates, but even if they could, other counties wouldn’t be able to afford it, Merry said.

The $12.2 million given to the counties by the state hasn’t changed in six years, even though costs have increased, he said. Earlier this year, the jail system needed an infusion of $2.5 million to keep running. There is every expectation the jails will have to ask for additional funding again next year, Merry said.

That creates a scenario in which some jails, such as Kennebec, face serious crowding, while others, such as the Somerset County Jail in East Madison or Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset, have empty beds.

“The law is written right now in such a way that it prevents the counties from utilizing that excess capacity for a county like Kennebec that needs it,” Merry said. “It really is a conundrum.”

TALE OF TWO JAILS

No two jails better illustrate the current situation than those in Somerset and Kennebec counties, Merry said.

The 156-year-old Kennebec County Correctional Facility, on State Street in the heart of Augusta, is a small, aging lockup in a region that has had a surge in population and arrests. Its official capacity is 147 inmates.

Somerset County Jail, on the other hand, opened in 2008 and can hold more than 230.

Before the bill was passed, inmates from Kennebec and Penobscot counties regularly were housed at the Somerset jail, Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster said. Inmates from Franklin County were returned when its jail was restored to full-service status earlier this year, after being a 72-hour holding center for several years..

“When the law went into effect, we had around 18 to 20 Kennebec County inmates, and we asked to be compensated for housing them,” Lancaster said. State funding was not in place, so Somerset could charge boarding fees.

Instead of continuing to pay for boarding, Kennebec County opted to take its inmates back.

At the time, Somerset was charging $100 per day per inmate, and it issued a bill to Kennebec County for $37,000, according to Lancaster. So far, there has been no further discussion about compensation, he said.

Currently, the jail could accommodate another 80 inmates from other counties, but since it is also dealing with a jail budget crunch, it won’t take them unless there is an emergency situation or there is a contract in place to pay for housing services, Lancaster said.

“The taxpayers of Somerset County will not be housing out-of-county inmates,” he said.

Counties are allowed to create memorandums of understanding for lump-sum payments to house inmates in other counties, but not have per-inmate deals, Merry said.

AUGUSTA SPACE CRUNCH

At the same time, as of Thursday, the Kennebec County Jail, 45 minutes south, was holding 170 inmates, 23 above its capacity, using cots in common rooms.

Reardon said the jail has another 130 inmates out on supervised release and has been working with the District Attorney’s Office and police departments to try to keep down the number of those who are incarcerated.

His department has “exhausted each and every plausible idea” to limit the numbers of inmates that need to be kept in jail, Reardon said.

Kennebec County Administrator Bob Devlin said the county already added $167,000 to the jail budget this year, for a $5.7 million total budget for jail operations. It’s still not enough to cover the county’s real costs, Devlin said.

“The state gives us funding for the jail, but not to the extent that we could pay boarding rates outside,” he said.

The county considered a new jail several years ago, and Devlin suspects that those plans might be dusted off.

“This change ratchets us back eight years,” he said.

Kennebec isn’t the only jail facing overcrowding. Penobscot County Jail in Bangor and Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn are facing serious crowding issues because they cannot board out inmates, Merry said.

The law that reversed consolidation was flawed, Merry said, but sheriffs and others intend to work on it in the upcoming legislative session. The consolidated system took years of tweaks and changes, so the sudden reversal has shocked the system.

“To undo it all with one piece of legislation, the result is not perfect,” Merry said.

Although the new law has put sheriffs in a tight spot, they have been working together to find solutions. Somerset County and Two Bridges, for example, are housing inmates temporarily for Penobscot County at no cost while that jail deals with some maintenance issues, Merry said.

“We want to work together. We want to help one another out, but it is a matter of available resources,” Merry said.