More than 40 employees of the Downeast Correctional Facility who were issued pink slips in May have won a reprieve. The Maine Legislature has included money in the budget to keep the minimum security prison open for another year.
First there was a bill to defund the small Machiasport prison, which was rejected by the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. Then LePage said he’d close it anyway. With a $5 million annual price tag, LePage said it had become too costly and inefficient to maintain. But some Washington County lawmakers objected. The prison is one of the largest employers in the region. Senate Republicans also questioned whether the governor had the authority to unilaterally close it and in the end lawmakers provided enough funding to keep it open until June of next year.
“Right now we have a reprieve for a year, and we also have language written in there that no facility can be closed without talking to the legislature, which are two things that I felt were very important in this process,” Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said.
Maker questioned how the Downeast facility could be closed when there are no other state prisons that can absorb part or all of the current population of about 60 inmates. Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick agrees space is a problem.
“We don’t have the current intention of removing the prisoners because we don’t have the beds to put them in,” he said. “At the same time we are not adding any prisoners to that facility at this point.”
But Fitzpatrick said LePage hasn’t given up on his plan to close the Downeast Correctional Facility. In recent months several inmates have been transferred out and some staff have retired or found other work because of the uncertainty surrounding the prison’s future. Fitzpatrick said he understands the anxiety this has caused.
“I certainly feel for those individuals, and I’m very proud of the staff,” Fitzpatrick said. “I can’t say enough good things about them. I think that they are diligent and have worked hard over the years.”
As debate intensified at the State House over closing the Downeast Correctional Facility, LePage also took the unusual step of commuting the sentences of 17 male prisoners and four female prisoners considered “low-risk” offenders. At the time LePage denied there was a link to his plan to close the prison and make room for inmates at other facilities. Fitzpatrick said there are no plans to release any other state prisoners early. But he said the governor may be seeking legal advice about whether he can release anyone from county jail. Maker said she’s also looking at whether some state prisoners can be placed in county jails.
“I’m not quite sure that the organizations that run those jails are up for that, but I’m sure for the right price they might be,” she said.
Whatever the plan is for closing the prison, Maker said she’s anxious to hear it. And she’ll be paying close attention over the next year.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.