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ACLU says Penobscot County's use of pandemic aid for jail upgrades should be investigated

Gabor Degre
Bangor Daily News
The Penobscot County Jail and Penobscot County Sheriff's Office in Bangor are shown in 2018.

Plans to use federal rescue money for renovations inside the Penobscot County Jail have prompted concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which says the funds have been misused and is calling for an investigation.

The Maine ACLU is joining other affiliates in asking a U.S. Treasury Department watchdog to investigate. They say multiple state and local municipalities are misusing American Rescue Plan funds to pay for jail construction and expansion projects around the country. And they point to Penobscot County as an example.

County commissioners previously weighed whether they could use a portion of its nearly $30 million ARPA allocation to expand the jail, which is old, overcrowded and in need of repairs. The discussion ignited a debate in the community, and the county determined that it couldn't use ARPA funds for a jail expansion project.

The county's reports to Treasury show that it has set aside about $1.2 million for jail upgrades, which include repairing the elevator, updating the control room and buying a new body scanner.

Carol Garvan, the legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said ARPA funds were intended to support local governments in responding to the impacts of the pandemic on their communities.

“The American Rescue Plan Act was intended to support local governments in responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on their communities,” said Carol Garvan, legal director for the ACLU of Maine.

"Although Penobscot is correct that ARPA funds could not be used to build a new jail, it is wrong that ARPA funds provide a blank check for jail renovations," the ACLU wrote in a letter to the Treasury Department's inspector general. "Using funds to repair the jail in ways that have no connection to COVID-19 violates ARPA and diverts money from a community in desperate need of improved behavioral health and housing resources."

A call to the Penobscot County commissioner's office for comment was not immediately returned.