York County Jail has a new administrator. Nathan Thayer, formerly of the Maine Department of Corrections, who was “on loan” from DOC an interim administrator starting in late June, was hired in early September. Tammy Wells Photo

ALFRED — When York County Jail Administrator Nathan Thayer talks about those who live at the jail in Alfred —  either serving a sentence or awaiting trial — he calls them residents, not inmates.

It is a deliberate term, one that came to be used during his long tenure at the Maine Department of Corrections.

Thayer, 40, was “on loan” from DOC to York County Sheriff’s Office starting in late June following the dismissal by York County Commissioners of former jail administrator Michael Vitiello. When the position for jail administrator was advertised, Thayer applied, and was hired, starting in early September. His salary is $105,000 annually.

“A year ago, DOC changed language,” he said of the term “resident” used for those housed at the jail. “And in this day and age, language does matter. I brought that with me. Culture is very important to what we do. I want to bring a culture of respect for one another. I’m big on respect for everyone — staff, residents, contract staff. That’s where you start.”

Thayer has about 16 years in corrections, starting with Kennebec County Jail in 2001. Then came a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves 619th Transportation Company and a deployment. He joined the Maine Department of Corrections in January 2006, working at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, was promoted to sergeant in 2011, to captain in 2017, and became Director of Security at the facility in 2019.

“I saw a lot of potential in this facility and the staff who work here,” Thayer said of his months as interim administrator at York County Jail. “I really didn’t want to stop.”

There have been fewer people housed at the jail since the coronavirus pandemic began about 18 months ago; police departments countywide tend to issue summonses, rather than make arrests unless the crime is one of violence, Thayer noted. That has helped keep the numbers of pre-trial people housed at the jail down and therefore less likely to encounter COVID-19 — though it did happen a year ago. Coronavirus at the jail in the late summer of 2020 sickened 48 jail staff and 16 of their household members along with 48 jail residents. The former jail administrator’s handling of protocols around coronavirus from the spring of 2020 until the August 2020 outbreak led to his dismissal  by county commissioners, acting on Sheriff William King’s recommendation, in June.

Thayer said jail staff leaders – captains and lieutenants, meet with him every Monday to discuss jail-related matters — including dealing with COVID-19.

“We knew it was not a matter of if, but when,” the delta variant would enter the jail, he said.

Thayer said one man arrested and brought to the jail tested positive for coronavirus — which was identified before staff had contact with the man. He was taken to the medical wing of the facility and later cleared by the Maine CDC without the virus spreading to others.

Those arrested and brought to jail are given both a rapid and PCR test upon arrival and if vaccinated, are quarantined three days, he said. Someone unvaccinated is quarantined 14 days.

The number of staff employed is down, and has been since before coronavirus, but the census at the Alfred facility is down too as some residents — around 30, although the number can vary — are housed at Cumberland County Jail in Portland, under a contract with York County.  Thayer said he is hopeful that recruitment and retention of staff at York County Jail will be on the upswing.

“We’ve had a lot of interest lately,” Thayer said, and he is hopeful the pay increases included in the latest corrections contract will help attract candidates. The starting pay is about $21.30 an hour, which includes an automatic $3 per hour premium, and more with shift differentials, according to King. Thayer pointed out that those who go to the movies at Smitty’s Cinemas are soon likely to see a recruitment video — part of the effort to attract candidates for corrections jobs.

There is advancement of initiatives already in place. When he arrived, said Thayer, just one resident was participating in the MAT (medically assisted treatment)  program for substance misuse. Now, there are 28, part of a big push to fight the opioid crisis, he said, and follow-up counseling is available upon release.

As to those meetings with staff — he pointed out lieutenants and captains have a voice in decision-making.

He said he believes in full transparency.

“And there should be,” said Thayer. “Especially with major decisions. I am spending the taxpayer’s money.”

King said when Thayer arrived on the scene for the short-term vacancy, he observed.

“He continues to observe,” said King. “… he is talking with everybody and gaining buy-in from the staff and it is noticeable. He understands the corrections field.”

King said Thayer arrived with the sense  that he would “hold down the fort” until a new jail administrator was chosen. “But as the weeks drew on, I think he truly liked and cared for the staff and he sees the untapped potential of our people,” King continued. “He has great leadership qualities and is willing to collaborate to make the York County Jail the best it can be.”

“I’m really excited for this adventure and challenge,” said Thayer of his new job. “This county and jail have so much potential. I think we can do great things down here.”

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