By A.M. Sheehan
PARIS — Loud.
Every door in the Oxford County Jail clangs shut with a metal bang that jars the soul as it reverberates down the corridors.
Dully painted cinder block walls, tile floors and heavy metal doors. Small windows allowing sight into each of the six cell blocks.
This is not a welcoming place.
It wasn’t designed to be.
This is where you go when you are charged with breaking the law.
Here is where you wait to face a judge or post bail with a bail commissioner.
Here orange is not the new black. It’s just orange. Shapeless orange scrub-style shirts, pants and blue/grey rubber or cotton shoes.
A depressing picture.
And yet, inmates prefer Oxford County Jail over other facilities.
“The food is great,” laughed one woman. “They give us real food.”
The food, in fact, is made and delivered by Market Square Restaurant and for $18 a day per inmate, inmates get a full breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But it is not just the food that inmates prefer in the Oxford Jail. It’s the attitude. Jail staff treat prisoners firmly but with great patience and, often, humor. Especially with the “frequent flyers” – individuals who have been arrested more than once and brought to the jail.
The old adage about catching more flies with honey seems to be the modus operandi here and it appears to work, maintaining orderliness and cooperation amongst the inmates.
The cell blocks contain a common room surrounded by individual cells. A communal shower is off the common room and some cells have toilets and some share a communal toilet.
Common rooms have tables and televisions.
Down one corridor is a library, although, according to Jail Administrator Capt. Edward M. Quinn, it is rarely used. Near it is the laundry room and stacks of clean towels, orange uniforms and shoes.
Down another corridor is the booking room where new arrestees are brought to be fingerprinted, photographed, answer intake questions and given their new attire.
There is a medical room where inmate medications are kept, as well as some over the counter meds for such things as a headache. There is also a kitchen, left over from the days when the jail was a full-time, full-service operation.
There are “single” cells (outside of the blocks) where uncooperative or intoxicated prisoners are held until they sober up or quiet down. Or a prisoner waiting for bail money may occupy a single separate cell.
And then there’s the observation cell. This is a single “dry” cell (without toilet or shower) with a window where the prisoner can be observed. This is mostly used for suicide watch when there is concern an inmate may try and harm themself.
If someone is placed on suicide watch, a corrections officer is required to stay in the small office on the other side of the window for as long as the prisoner is on watch.
The OCJ used to be a full-time, full-service jail. However, cost cutting measures cut it from full time to a 72-hour facility.
Anyone sentenced longer is currently taken to Cumberland County Jail where Oxford County pays for Cumberland to house its prisoners.
A Friday night
It is 6 p.m. on a Friday night.
Friday night seemed as though it would be a good time to observe some action at the county jail. The cops are certainly busy on a Friday night in the summer.
Sgt. James Hoyt of Bryant Pond is the shift supervisor. Corrections Officer Jenn White of South Paris and Cpl. Mike Damon of South Paris present a formidable duo. Both seem to be in excellent physical condition and both have a no nonsense look to them.
On the board behind them in the control room it says they have two female and three male guests so far.
A bell rings signalling someone is at the downstairs front entrance. Hoyt lets him in.
It is a self-committal individual who turns himself in at 6 p.m. every Friday and leaves at 6 p.m. every Sunday until his sentence is fulfilled. During the week, he works full time.
The “weekend warrior” changes into jail garb. He is housed as a trustee as is one of the women. Trustees are allowed to work around the facility to earn time from their sentence.
They can do such chores as laundry, cleaning or gardening.
The weekend warrior is asked if he knows how to do laundry. He does not. A quick lesson and he is left to do loads of laundry, which includes washing, drying, folding and putting away.
The woman takes on the cleaning and mopping of her cell block.
There are now two women and four men in residence.
Three want to make phone calls. The COs allow them to one at a time over a period of about an hour. They have a time limit on these calls. One calls her mother and chats.
Another, charged with domestic violence, makes a number of calls attempting to reach someone to post his bail. He is unsuccessful and leaves messages. He has been trying to reach someone for more than two hours.
Every 15 minutes a CO will walk the jail, checking on the inmates. After lock-down, which happens at 11:30 p.m., they check to ensure everyone is asleep and breathing.
At lock-down everyone leaves the various common rooms in their cell block and goes into their individual cell where they are locked in for the night. Each cell door has a small window so the COs can check on the inmates.
Hoyt sits in front of the computer screens, one showing multiple camera angles throughout the jail and the other showing the police, fire and rescue calls on the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. With a flick of the mouse, he can read law enforcement and dispatcher notes and this gives him a heads-up as to the possibility of a new prisoner coming in and what to expect with that prisoner.
It is quiet with the exception of the echoing doors clanging shut as a CO makes the rounds.
Damon tells how he used to work at a state prison in Warren after serving in the U.S. Army infantry. He came to the jail to work because, he says, it is closer to home. He says he thinks working in a jail or prison is potentially more dangerous than working in law enforcement.
Corrections officers are trained, like law enforcement, with a focus on hand to hand combat and reading body language. The are taught to protect themselves and to talk down an escalating situation.
The phone rings. Sometimes, says Hoyt, it is someone calling asking about bailing someone out. Sometimes, he says, it in an individual calling to ask if there are any warrants against them. This time it is dispatch notifying the jail that a prisoner is “coming up the hill” to the jail.
Hoyt says dispatch tries to notify them unless it is really busy.
The state police car can be seen by the outside cameras. Damon and White head down to booking.
Hoyt pushes a button on the computer screen, which allows the sally port door to open. The sally port is a secure entrance to the jail. The car drives into a “garage-type” area and the overhead door shuts and locks before the interior door is opened.
Trooper Martin Royal brings in his prisoner, a petite woman charged with OUI after an unfortunate encounter with a telephone pole.
It is 7:29 p.m.
A very cheerful prisoner, the barefoot 40-year-old woman laughs and jokes about running away to Alaska with Royal.
“Can’t you just taste that Alaskan salmon?” she asks, with a girlish giggle.
She stands where they ask to have her “mug shot” taken.
“This is a vacation!” she announces, “I can stay here and eat three meals.”
Hoyt asks if she is hungry. She says she is and he disappears to get her some food.
Remarkable, although her crash split the telephone pole into three, she has walked away with just a scrape on her arm. White gets a first aid kit and gently cleans and bandages the scrape.
The woman is then led to the fingerprint machine, which is electronic, straight out of “CSI.” Fingers and palms are placed on a screen and the machine “reads” the print, creating photographs. These, along with the mug shot, go with her intake record.
Royal sits at another desk working on his laptop filling out paperwork. A Brit who emigrated to the states “for a woman,” he is a charmer and his prisoner is clearly enamoured with him but she insists “with that accent” he is Irish. He laughs.
Hoyt returns with a Styrofoam container containing a warm meal of ham, mashed potato and a vegetable. This is the same meal the inmates had.
She starts to wolf it down.
On the way to the jail, Royal explains, he stopped at Bridgton Police Department and used its Intoxilator breathalyzer. The woman blew a .32 BrAC (breath alcohol content). She was four times the legal limit (.o8) to drive.
White quietly and patiently asks a series of questions in between the woman’s flirtations with the trooper. The questions are designed to let the jail know what they might be dealing with.
There are drug use questions as well as other health-related questions. They need this information as well as their personal observations in order to ensure that a prisoner gets any medical attention they might need and/or is carefully watched for any issues.
Their biggest concern, according to Operations Officer Dana Dillingham, is alcohol withdrawal.
“Alcohol, not heroin, is my biggest concern. It can become a medical issue.”
Dillinham explains that drug withdrawal is not pleasant but not life threatening whereas long-term alcohol abuse withdrawal can be.
A call to the next bail commissioner on rotation elicits a bail of $250 plus the bail commissioner fee of $60. For $310, she can leave the jail but not until she is sober.
For prisoners under the influences of drugs or alcohol, there is a mandatory hold of six to 12 hours.
But for her, it doesn’t matter. She has no money, she says, and no one to call.
There are now three women and three men ensconced in jail.
The man trying to reach someone to post his bail makes another phone call at 9:05 p.m. and this time, reaches someone. Hanging up he tells White “it [bail money] probably won’t be coming tonight.” She gives him an orange suit and some shoes, he changes, then trudges quietly after her to a cell block for the night.
At 11:08 p.m. the phone rings again and Hoyt is told another prisoner is on his way. This proves to be the beginning of an influx.
This man was arrested on a warrant for unpaid fines. He is cooperative and says he has no job and no money so, “What can I do?”
He is booked into the jail, he changes and is led to his quarters.
Six minutes later Royal returns to the sally port with another prisoner charged with OUI.
This one is not as cooperative as the first. A large man, Royal leaves him in handcuffs while he prepares the Intoxilator.
While the machine warms up and calibrates, the man squirms in his chair making a plethora of faces and wincing, complaining that his cuffs are too tight. He is loud and his body language appears to indicate some belligerence.
A CO stations himself next to the man.
“Where’s my dog?” he demands.
“The ACO has him,” Royal answers calmly.
“Where’s my truck?” he demands louder.
His truck was in a ditch and had to be towed, Royal explains.
The man then decides he doesn’t want to take the breath test.
Royal tells him that’s fine, he doesn’t have to but he really should know that if he chooses not to he could lose his license for up to six years.
“Six years!” he bellows starting to stand. A CO gently but firmly places a hand on his shoulder. He sits back down.
“Fine I’ll take it,” he says, muttering six years to himself in amazement.
He takes the breath test and blows a .33. He is more than four times the legal limit.
His bail is set at $500 plus $60 because he is from out of state.
He is processed in quiet tones, changes and is taken to a cell to sober up.
Another officer is coming up the hill. It is 11:38 p.m. It is another OUI. This man is from the Bangor area and he was arrested coming out of Oxford Casino where, apparently he is not welcome. He empties his pockets and has wads of hundred dollar bills.
Two COs count the money in front of the man. He agrees with the count and signs a chit. He has almost $5,000 on him. He blows a .14. He is almost twice the limit.
They process him quietly and shepherd him to his new digs for the night.
At 12:55 a.m. the phone rings. Hoyt answers and the conversation is brief.
“That was someone calling from Riverview Mental Health in Augusta asking when he could go home.”
As of 1 a.m. the jail is now housing three women and six men.
At 1:14 a.m. an Oxford officer brings in a female charged with OUI. She had recently left the casino where, according to her, she had spent the day.
From the get-go she is argumentative and sullen. The Oxford officer notes the casino had called to report her as an intoxicated driver leaving the parking lot. He had followed her and finally got her to pull over just over the Mechanic Falls line. She fails a field sobriety test.
He then took her to Oxford Police Department for a breath test, which she had agreed to. But somehow between her car and OPD she had bitten her lip and had blood in her mouth so he could not administer the test.
She then agreed, he says, to go to Stephens Memorial Hospital for a blood test. He calls a blood tech but when they arrive at the hospital, she refuses to have a blood test.
It is her right. She will now face mandatory suspension of her license.
Remarking that the fingerprint machine is “really cool,” she will not hold her hand still and they have to repeat the printing of her fingerprints.
Throughout she is commenting on the ridiculousness of the arrest. She has never even had a ticket she tells the room.
“I had a glass of wine at lunch for god’s sake.”
No one responds.
White asks her what her shoe size is and she announces, “I am not changing my clothes.”
White quietly asks again and gets the same answer. White firmly says to her, “Don’t make me ask you again.”
The woman tells her shoe size. Whites gets her some jail clothes.
She, too, has a lot of hundred dollar bills on her and the COs count it with her and lock it in a safe place.
Her bail is set at $500 plus $60 as she is from out of state.
The police officer tells her her court date and she tells him she won’t be there, she’ll be out of town.
“That’s your prerogative,” he says, “but if you don’t show up a warrant will be issued.”
She argues having her photo taken. It is taken.
She calls her husband and has a brief conversation.
They tell her she has an eight to 12 hour hold on her.
She finally stands, bounces off the desk and stumbles out of her sandals and goes to change. She is then led to her cell.
A new day
Daytime at the jail is quieter with fewer bookings and a somewhat set schedule. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are court days. Because the South Paris District Court does not have a full-time assigned judge, court appearances will often happen via video link to another county courtroom.
However, before that happens, those scheduled to appear are brought into the jail’s multipurpose room where they watch a 10-or-so-minute video of a judge explaining to them procedure and what to expect when they “go to court.”
Around 9 a.m. a corrections officer brings however many prisoners need to watch the video into the room and another watches the proceedings from the control room, paying attention to the prisoners’ body language. This will give an early warning if someone is going to be difficult. The prisoners watch the video in various stages of boredom and then return to their cell blocks to await their court time at 1 p.m.
Since the jail became a 72-hour holding facility, the implementation of video court in October 2010, they have held 248 video conference days, accomodating 1,035 inmate arraignments, saving the county a lot of money, says Quinn. Prior to that they had the cost of transportation and personnel to take prisoners to court in Lewiston, Bridgton, Rumford or Farmington.
The front door rings and a woman comes up. She wants to post bail for someone charged with domestic violence. Dillingham asks her, “Aren’t you the victim?”
She says she is. He asks her if she has contact information for SAPARS (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services) and Safe Voices (domestic violence). She says she does.
She asks if she will be allowed to sign for the bail. This would guarantee that if the person she is bailing out appears in court she would get her money back minus any fines or fees.
Dillingham says he doesn’t know it is a question for the bail commissioner but there is a strong chance, since she is the victim, that she will not be allowed to do so. If the bailee signs for himself the money is considered his and would be returned to him and she would have no legal standing to get the money back. She says ,”OK,” and sits to await the bail commissioner. The bail amount in this case is $500 plus $60 bail commissioner fee. She says it is her entire paycheck.
It is almost 1 p.m. and that is court time. Cpl. Todd Hussey brings three men in handcuffs and shackles into the multipurpose room. The attorney of the day arrives and joins them. This attorney will represent all three individually today. She meets with each for a few minutes.
The assistant district attorney arrives as does a representative from Maine Pretrial Services.
Hussey gets the television turned on and, after some technical gyrations, Oxford Jail is connected to a courtroom in Farmington.
The judge introduces himself and the two attorneys do likewise.
Of the three, two plead “guilty” and one “not guilty.”
With each defendant, the judge carefully goes over what is happening and what is expected, asking questions to make sure everything is understood.
About 20 minutes later, court is over for the Oxford inmates and they return to their cells to await the court paperwork releasing them.
For the rest of the day it will be routine as usual and the welcoming of any new prisoners.
It is quiet again in the jail, except for the clanging doors. Although the surroundings may be inhospitable that is offset by the respectful way the inmates are treated by the corrections staff.
And the skills they might learn such as how to do laundry.
And the food.