FARMINGTON, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- A disagreement between the state Board of Corrections and officials with the Somerset County Jail has the sheriff of Franklin County threatening to reopen his facility if an accord can not be reached soon.
"What we are having for a problem is the state, more than anything else - more than our own personal benefit, they want our money," said Sheriff Scott Nichols. "They want our $600,000 a year to put into the dispersement fund, and we are saying we are all done paying it."
Sheriff Nichols says the Franklin County Jail was one of three county detention centers that were transformed into holding facilities in a reorganization of the state's corrections system back in 2009. Being a holding facility means prisoners cannot be held at the old jail facility for longer than 72 hours, so inmates awaiting trial or serving out a sentence have to be housed in other county jails.
The majority of Franklin County's prisoners are transported to the Somerset County Jail in East Madison, about 45 minutes away.
The relatively new Somerset County Jail boards prisoners from several counties and also houses federal prisoners. Somerset officials want to use some of the money they receive from the federal government to pay down its debt from the construction of the facility, but the state Board of Corrections is concerned about them doing that and is withholding a quarterly payment due to the county until the Attorney General can review the situation.
Because the state is withholding payment, Somerset County Jail is no longer accepting prisoners from outside its jurisdiction, sending people like Sheriff Nichols scrambling to find an empty bed in other facilities.
"We are like air traffic controllers every day trying to find a spot to place these people," stated Nichols.
"We can't bring anymore new prisoners there, we have to find homes for them somewhere else in the state," he added. "That gives us a real problem."
Last week his deputies had to transport a prisoner each to jails in Kennebec and Lincoln Counties to house them, a round trip of roughly 125 miles.
"The problem we have right now is when the system fails, or it breaks down like it has, it ripples throughout the entire state," explained Nichols.
He says Franklin County pays the state about $1.6 million for handling its corrections, of which about a million is returned to operate the holding facility. Nichols says the other $600,000 is used by the state to pay for other jails' costs through the Board of Corrections investment fund.
"We are going to do something about it," stated Nichols. "I consulted with the county commissioners and we've decided we are going to take a stand. We are going to hold our remaining amount of money we have to pay into the state this year and we are not going to pay them."
"We are going to plan on staffing our jail, we are going to plan on firing this thing back up with the money that we have left over, and taking care of the problem ourselves because obviously the state can't do it," he added.
"They have to utilize other jails from around the state and it becomes a logistical battle to find where some open beds are," stated Michael Tausek, a member of the Board of Corrections.
"Although we are a coordinated system, there is still autonomy out there amongst the jails," added Tausek. "Even though they are always trying to coordinate and work together, it is still very difficult."
Sheriff Nichols says a bill to reopen the Franklin County Jail was voted down by the legislature's criminal justice committee, and he has completed a review the Board of Corrections asked for looking into the operating costs associated with reopening the jail, but has not heard a response on the findings that say it would be economically feasible to do at or below the current amount the county pays the state.
"We have to keep them, we have no choice," explained Nichols. "The state of Maine has forced this upon us."
He plans to hold a rally outside the Franklin County Courthouse on Wednesday evening to explain the position the county finds itself in directly to the public. He says people are upset to learn about the situation and want the county to reassume control of its prisoners.
Sheriff Nichols says it is not just finances that are driving this. He says the changes have had a negative impact on families left struggling to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones, have hampered the legal defense efforts of prisoners by removing them from where their lawyers are located, and even have reduced the amount of inmate work done through for community programs.
"This is nothing that we can't do, we have been doing it for over 100 years," said Sheriff Nichols. "We can take our prisoners and house them here no problem. It is not an issue for us."