AUGUSTA, Maine — A state budget-cutting committee tabled a proposal Friday from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte to close the Down East Correctional Facility.
Ponte said earlier this month that he was recommending closure of the 150-bed prison as a way to cut $4 million from the corrections budget. That closure would have put 68 people out of work in a county with much higher unemployment than the state average.
The budget streamline task force voted 10-2 on Friday to defer action on that proposal and asked Ponte to come back with alternative recommendations for savings.
One area that was identified for potential cuts in the Department of Corrections was pharmaceutical costs, which Ponte said are much higher in Maine’s correctional system than other states.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who had spoken out against Ponte’s recommendation, hailed Friday’s vote.
“It is clear they understand both the vital role played by Down East Correctional Facility in Maine and its enormous value to the economy in Washington County,” he said of task force members. “They asked excellent questions that I believe will lead to more responsible savings within the Department of Corrections.”
Added Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting: “Ironically, the commissioner’s proposal has shed light on the value and importance of the facility in a way that I believe will be helpful to ensuring its future.”
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, a member of the budget-cutting group, said Friday’s vote doesn’t change facts, including that an estimated $1 million is needed to bring the prison up to building and electrical safety codes.
“I think it’s clear based on what the commissioner said that something needs to happen to keep a facility there,” he said. “It’s still very expensive to operate.”
The task force, created with the passage of the $6.1 billion biennial budget, has been directed to identify at least $25 million in savings. The Department of Corrections’ share of that $25 million was about $1.2 million, much less than the $4 million in annual savings from closing the Down East Correctional Facility.
This is the third time that state officials have looked at closing the Down East Correctional Facility. The facility was targeted in 1994 and again in 1995.
Raye and other members of the Washington County legislative delegation testified Friday that the impact of closing the Down East Correctional Facility would be disproportionately felt in a particularly economically depressed part of the state. The same group also met with Gov. Paul LePage earlier this week.
Among other things, opponents of the closure disagreed with Commissioner Ponte’s contention that the facility is unsafe because it does not have a sprinkler system and said the facility has been thoroughly inspected.
“The Washington County delegation presented information to the task force that laid out the many positives of Down East Correctional Facility,” said Rep. Joyce A. Maker, R-Calais. “I appreciate the fact that they took these issues seriously and made a thoughtful decision to look for savings elsewhere.”
The cost to medicate inmates could well be that elsewhere.
Ponte said his department has spent $2 million over budget on medications for inmates and $35 per inmate for psychotropic drugs. The national average is $10 per inmate. The department’s contract for medications has not been rebid in seven years but Ponte has taken steps to address the problem.
“I was impressed by the commissioner that he has been able to reduce the number of prescriptions per inmate from seven to five,” Rep. Martin said.
The budget streamline committee has until the end of the year to present its final recommendations for cuts.