Washington County towns oppose proposal to close Machiasport prison

Posted Feb. 27, 2014, at 5:32 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 27, 2014, at 9:31 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Towns in the vicinity of the Downeast Correctional Facility, which the Department of Corrections has proposed closing, are lining up in support of the small, minimum security prison.

The boards of selectmen in several towns have adopted resolutions opposing the prison closing, and more are expected to follow suit, according to an official who has been helping organize the campaign.

The Machias Board of Selectmen was the latest governing body to adopt a resolution, voting 5-0 Wednesday night to adopt the measure with no discussion.

State officials took the wraps off a study last week that endorses replacing the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. The study, presented to the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, calls for closing the minimum security prison in Machiasport and downsizing or converting other prison facilities in order to reduce operating costs for the state Department of Corrections. If the study’s recommendations are implemented, the department would be able to eliminate more than 100 jobs, including 50 at the Downeast Correctional Facility.

Earlier this week, the Machiasport Board of Selectmen adopted a similar resolution by a vote of 2-0. Selectmen Burleigh Sprague and Charles Ingalls voted in favor of the resolution Monday; Selectman Michael Murphy was absent.

The campaign to stir up public opposition to the closing is led by a couple of members of the East Machias Board of Selectmen: Will Tuell and Kenneth Davis. The East Machias board voted 3-0 on Feb. 19 to adopt the resolution opposing the prison closing and a second resolution opposing a state takeover of local jails. East Machias officials have distributed the resolutions to select boards of other area towns and asked them to consider adopting them.

The Machias Board of Selectmen also voted 5-0 Wednesday night to adopt the resolution opposing a state takeover of jails.

“It beats the hell out of the state running it,” said Selectman Glenn Davis as the board took quick action on the resolution.

“That’s for sure,” added Selectman Warren Gay.

So far, they have received resolutions approved by one other town, Whiting, but Tuell indicated Wednesday that resolutions also are expected soon from Alexander, Cutler and Jonesboro, and other communities are considering them this week.

The resolutions will be presented to state officials when local officials have an opportunity to speak to the plan at some point in the future, said Tuell. They also will be communicated to the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections.

The resolution opposed to the prison closing notes that the Department of Corrections plan calls for a bond issue, which it terms “both unwise and imprudent in the current fiscal environment,” and that voters would have no say-so in incurring the debt. The resolution opposes “any efforts to close, downsize or absorb Downeast Correctional Facility into any other correctional facility.’

“We believe in local control,” Davis said in a joint statement he issued with Tuell last week. “We also believe that both facilities are being run effectively and efficiently, and that we as municipal leaders need to step up and let the people in Augusta know that we won’t stand for these harebrained ideas.”

“My biggest issue with closing the Bucks Harbor prison is the cost,” Tuell said in the joint statement. The plan to double the size of the state prison in Windham would mean a $170 million bond issue, he noted.

“Meanwhile, we’re going to shut down an efficient, well run facility and displace employees, inmates and their families so our state can go further arrears?” he said.

Replacing the Windham prison would cost an estimated $173.1 million, according to the study, which was performed by SMRT Architects of Portland and Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, a criminal justice consulting firm based in Lido Beach, N.Y. Financing the project with bonds would cost $12.74 million annually for 20 years, or $254.8 million.

However, annual savings that result from the proposal would exceed bond payments by $0.9 million, according to the study. Those savings would be achieved by reduced prison system operating costs of $8.5 million annually and avoiding the need for an estimated $71.4 million in needed improvements to various prison facilities if the project is not undertaken.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story carried an incorrect headline. Downeast Correctional Facility is in Machiasport, not Machias.

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