“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” comes to mind when learning about the latest proposal being considered by Gov. Paul LePage and Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte who are considering closing the Downeast Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor.
The estimated savings of $4 million is a fraction compared to the loss in income to the 68 people employed by the prison, the dollars they spend in our local economy with the purchases of goods and services and, moreover, the services our local towns receive from the DCF public works programs.
This past summer, volunteers from the work program at DCF, a state operated prison in the town of Machiasport, made the difference in getting the Machias Area Little League ballpark ready to play for this season. The DCF work crew contributed one week of free labor to paint and repair the facility.
The savings was estimated to be $3,000-$4,000, a huge amount for a league entirely dependent on donations from local businesses who very graciously help the program every year and without whom there would be no program.
If LePage and Ponte really want to control costs and maximize the dollars spent on corrections, they should not be looking at closing the DCF, but figure out how to build upon its model public works program to do more public works projects that would save even more money for Maine taxpayers and avoid raising money through bonds to pay for things like road and bridge repairs.
In Maine, it costs of $29,000 per year to house a prisoner, including clothes, food, health care, etc. I can’t think of a better way to put these tax dollars to work then to put more inmates to work in state-run correctional work programs such as the DCF’s to fix our roads and bridges.
Maine like all other states is struggling with the cost for corrections. A Pew Center study on the cost for corrections indicates state spending across the country the past two decades reached $52 billion dollars, making it the second fastest growing area for state budgets next to Medicaid.
In Alabama, where it costs $15,000 a year to house an inmate, prisons operate at 190 percent capacity. In Vermont, the cost for corrections more than doubled over the last decade to $140 million in this fiscal year.
In these tough economic times, there’s no money to build new prisons. As a result, states are looking at work programs as way to manage the increasing cost for corrections.
Here in Maine, the time has come for the governor and Legislature to come up with a plan to control costs for corrections. One approach is to simply cut and eliminate programs, but a better one is to preserve what works and is successful.
In Washington County, the DCF public works program has been an incredible success for many years providing towns with services that otherwise would not be available due to lack of local funding. It would be shame to lose the benefits to our local towns not to mention all the jobs lost if the facility is closed.
Ian Emery is a former Republican state representative from District 32 and currently is chairman of the Cutler Board of Selectmen and president of Machias Area Little League.