LePage will not OK bond for new prison, says senator

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting
Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting Buy Photo
Posted March 29, 2014, at 11:39 a.m.
Last modified March 29, 2014, at 3:06 p.m.

Gov. Paul LePage will not submit legislation this term to authorize bonds to finance the proposed replacement of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, according to a member of Washington County’s legislative delegation.

The governor’s decision means the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport is in no immediate danger of being closed, according to state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. State officials were considering closing the Washington County minimum security prison as part of the plan to replace the Windham prison.

In addition, LePage told him he would propose a joint prison facility, according to Burns, in order to keep prison jobs and work programs in Washington County. That is an idea that has been floated before in previous years when state officials considered closing the Machiasport prison, he said Saturday.

“I call that extremely good news,” said Burns, who notified officials in Washington County of the development on Friday.

LePage was vacationing in Jamaica this week and was not available for comment.

The governor’s decision means it is unlikely that a bill authorizing bonds for the new prison will be considered in the current session of the Maine Legislature, which is scheduled to come to a close in mid-April.

“There would be a “lot of hoops to jump through,” said Burns, in order to authorize bonds for the proposed prison during the time remaining in the legislative session.

“I believe we have some breathing time to work on an alternative (to) what was proposed,” said Burns. “That’s been our intent,” he said, all along.

State officials unveiled a study in mid-February that endorsed replacing the Windham prison. The study, prepared by consultants, called 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. Maine’s prison system is one of the most costly to operate in the U.S.; the average daily cost per offender was the the ninth highest among the 47 states reporting such data as of 2012.

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.

The development also was hailed by state Rep. Katherine Cassidy, D-Lubec, whose district includes the Machiasport prison.

“The people of Washington County stood up, made their voices heard and successfully convinced the LePage administration that (the prison) is a valuable community asset that is worth keeping open,” Cassidy said in a statement she issued Friday.

Will Tuell, a Republican member of the East Machias Board of Selectman who is seeking to unseat Cassidy in the November election, said he was “stoked” by the news.

The East Machias board passed a resolution in mid-February opposing plans to close the prison, and Tuell and fellow Selectman Kenneth Davis sent copies of the resolution to select boards and city councils in other communities, asking them to do likewise. Twenty-one localities did so, according to Tuell, passing the resolution unanimously.

“But we can’t rest on our laurels,” Tuell said Friday. Every governor since the mid-1990s has considered plans to realign the Department of Corrections, he pointed out. The residents of Washington County and their elected officials “need to keep a very close eye on Augusta,” he said, and remain engaged to ensure that the Machiasport prison is kept open.

 

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