September 23, 2018
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Funding for Down East prison running out as lawsuit over closure proceeds

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
A car sits parked outside a security gate at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport in this February 2017 file photo. The prison was shut down last month by Gov. Paul LePage.
By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Machiasport prison will be shuttered by June 30 without action from lawmakers, even if a Superior Court judge orders Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to send prisoners back and rehire workers.

That’s because funding to operate the Downeast Correctional Facility, which LePage abruptly began dismantling last month, does not extend into the next fiscal year, attorneys representing the Washington County town of Machiasport, the Maine attorney general’s office, the prison employee unions and the Department of Corrections agreed Monday.

The county and the town on Feb. 13 sued the DOC in Kennebec County Superior Court over the sudden removal of more than 60 prisoners and the issuance of pink slips to about 40 workers, seeking an injunction from a judge that would reverse those actions. The attorney general’s office and the unions representing the employees filed motions to intervene. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy considered arguments Monday.

The question facing the judge boils down to whether moving the prisoners on Feb. 9 and laying off the staff effective March 3 amounted to shutting down the facility, which only the Legislature can do. Or, if moving the inmates and offering laid-off staff positions at other facilities while keeping the lights and heat on through June 30 meets the letter of the law. Maine statutes give DOC commissioners the power to take those actions.

This appears to be the first time the DOC has been sued over the closing of one of its facilities.

Murphy said she hopes to issue an order early next week because she expects any decision she makes will be appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The parties also agreed just prior to the 90-minute hearing at the Capital Judicial Center that the DOC would not dismantle the facility before June 30, an extension of an agreement reached last month.

Not far from the courthouse, legislators were considering a proposal from LePage to build a 15- to 20-bed pre-release center in Washington County on the condition that the Machiasport facility be sold and the law authorizing it repealed.

Legislative efforts to pass a veto-proof bill that would provide $5.5 million to fund the facility for another year have failed so far.

LePage’s administration is not the first to try to close the prison, located on the site of a former Air Force station on the outskirts of Bucks Harbor, a fishing village in Machiasport, according to Bangor Daily News archives. The buildings used by the state as a prison since 1985 were formerly the mess hall and barracks for the U.S. Air Force 907th Radar Squadron.

The prison first was slated for closure by the DOC in 1993, when John McKernan was governor, but saved when the Legislature’s appropriations committee restored the $3 million it cost to run the facility back then. Multiple efforts since to close the facility have been stopped by Washington County legislators and community leaders.

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