The crisis at the Cumberland County Jail is destructive to the people being held there, now 23 hours a day in their cells, and it is dangerous for everyone involved.

But it is no surprise. It has been building for years, as too few correction officers have been left to look after too many inmates, amid a general failure of the county jail system that few people seem willing to fix.

Maybe now, as COVID makes that failure obvious, we’ll see some real reform.

First, Cumberland County has to deal with the crisis at hand. The roughly 300 people incarcerated there are now on lockdown as the jail deals with a COVID outbreak, as well as a shortage of staff that has left the remaining officers working thousands of hours of mandatory overtime, Matt Byrne of the Portland Press Herald reported Thursday.

It is a stressful, volatile situation for everyone involved, and it is putting everyone who works or is incarcerated at the jail at risk.

Whatever can be done to lessen the pressure inside the facility — by county and jail officials, judges, prosecutors and police — should be done immediately.

They should start with releasing people from the jail. Though the population is down considerably from pre-COVID levels, there’s no doubt it can go lower. Most of the people held at the jail are there awaiting trial, only charged with a crime, not convicted. Keeping them in the jail is accomplishing nothing except making the situation at the jail less tolerable.

That policy should continue even after the emergency has subsided. Prosecutors, and police and sheriff’s departments should also commit to issuing summons rather than conducting arrests, a policy that worked well in early pandemic.

Maine may have one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but it still far exceeds other democratic nations, and there’s no evidence that it is keeping people safer or helping people rehabilitate in any way that can’t be accomplished through other means.

What does make people less safe is having overworked and underpaid correctional officers look after people, many with mental health challenges, who are locked in a cell nearly all day.

Or forcing police officers to drive an hour out their way to take a person to a jail the next county over because the closest one can’t take them, as is happening in Cumberland County now.

There are other ideas for reducing the costs and funding structures that are pressuring county jails, many the result of a recent state task force. More stable funding, higher wages and better coordination between jails when it comes to programs and services are some of them.

But lowering the jail population should be the priority, at Cumberland County Jail as well as others that are regularly overcrowded, such as the Penobscot County Jail.

Holding so many people behind bars isn’t helping them or the community at large. It only succeeds in keeping the jails in a constant state of crisis.


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