August 20, 2018
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The Down East prison is a vital link in Maine’s corrections system

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Mark Dion, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Debate over the future of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport continues to consume the Legislature, intensified by Gov. Paul LePage’s order to remove all the inmates from the state facility and send layoff notices to staff, repeating an action he took a year earlier, then withdrew.

In 2017, the Legislature provided funding to maintain operations until June 30, 2018. Though the administration continued to transfer inmates elsewhere, the staff kept their jobs. There was no reason for the precipitous removals in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 9.

When I was Cumberland County sheriff, I joined the picket lines with jail employees because management did not respect their collective bargaining rights. A leader must defend the interests of the women and men under his command. I am disappointed that no one in the administration stood up for corrections officers and their families. The prison staff in Washington County deserved better from their superiors in Augusta.

The courts and the Legislature will continue to examine this attempted closing of the state institution, which defies all common sense. It inflicts needless harm on inmates, the employees who serve there, and the nearby communities that have consistently said it should remain open. No state employee should have to consider retiring to protect their benefits because of the whims of Maine’s chief executive.

The governor repeatedly misstates the purpose, condition and public importance of the Down East prison. We need to take a step back and look at how we can reach the important goal of improving, not destroying, corrections services in Washington County, which has the highest unemployment rate in Maine and where good jobs are scarce.

Over the past two decades, and under three administrations, the state has centralized its medium- and maximum-security prisons in Warren and Windham. Where prison sentences are measured in years, this make sense and provides greater efficiency in a system whose costs continue to rise.

At Machiasport, however, all inmates are nearing the end of their sentences, and need to adjust for and transition to life outside the prison gate, while receiving the support they need to find jobs and successfully re-enter the community.

That’s the purpose of the work-release and training programs used so successfully at Machiasport. It is not the “very bad place” that the governor describes.

But Machiasport, converted from a surplus U.S. Navy base, needs to be replaced with a new facility. This was envisioned in a 2014 agreement between the Maine Department of Corrections and the Legislature that also led to authorization of a major expansion of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Since then, the department has proceeded with planning for the Windham project but not a replacement for Machiasport.

The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will consider a new bill, LD 1841, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, that would authorize a pre-release facility in Washington County.

Washington County has an aging jail in Machias, one of several that, from time to time, has appeared on state closure lists. When considering a replacement for Machiasport, we should consider a combined facility that could expand educational offerings, training and work programs for state and county inmates. Programs for juvenile offenders could be included; eastern Maine has had few such services since the juvenile unit at the Charleston Correctional Facility in Penobscot County closed in 2015.

Gov. Paul LePage’s actions were wrong, and they should never have happened. But if we can restore a sound and effective community corrections program in Washington County, then something will have been gained — as well as providing a model for other regions of our state.

Mark Dion is a former Portland deputy police chief and Cumberland County sheriff. He served three terms in the Maine House of Representatives, where he co-chaired the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and was elected to the Maine Senate in 2016. He is a Democratic candidate for governor.

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