October 17, 2018
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LePage agrees to reopen Down East prison with minimal staffing

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
File photo of a red pickup truck pulling away from the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport in February 2017. Gov. Paul LePage said Monday he’ll comply with a court order to reopen the minimum security prison.

Gov. Paul LePage announced Monday he’ll comply with a court order to reopen Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport “with minimal staffing and a minimal number of inmates” through the end of June.

LePage’s decision, which he announced in a news release Monday afternoon, came five days after a Maine Superior Court judge ruled that the Republican governor didn’t have the authority to close the facility Feb. 9 without approval from the Legislature. An attorney for the plaintiffs said LePage’s stated plan doesn’t go far enough.

LePage said he met Monday with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick and that the facility will be opened “in the most fiscally responsible manner by the end of the week” and closed “when the appropriation expires.”

Jim Mackie, a union representative for corrections workers, said his group will have to be notified before workers are recalled. That hadn’t happened by Monday afternoon, but he said that LePage’s statement showed that the administration isn’t taking the ruling “too seriously.”

“I think if they get too cute here, they’ll find themselves back in front of the same judge,” he said.

A spokesman for the Maine State Employees Association also said Monday that none of the union’s members had received any notification about returning to work.

Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for LePage, said Monday that the Department of Corrections is “working off the recall list” to determine which employees will return and that “there will be a minimal number of inmates.”

The union spokesman said the “recall list” refers to the order in which employees would be invited back. Employees with the most seniority would be called back first, according to whether jobs in their positions need to be refilled.

On Thursday, attorneys representing the laid-off prison workers and other plaintiffs called for the reinstatement of all the laid-off employees with full back pay. An attorney for the LePage administration called the demands unreasonable and said the order “does not require any specific level of staffing.”

Asked whether former employees will be paid earnings they’ve missed since March 3 when their layoffs were effective, Rabinowitz said, “We cannot speak to back pay.” She did not indicate how many employees and prisoners would return to the facility.

Attorney David Webbert, who represents plaintiffs in the suit, called LePage’s announcement “a completely unacceptable response” in a written statement Monday afternoon.

“If the governor believes in the Maine Constitution and the rule of law, he should comply fully (and not ‘minimally,’) with the court order and reopen DCF actually, and not ‘minimally,’” wrote Webbert.

The prison, which has sat vacant since Feb. 9 when the LePage administration closed it suddenly in the predawn hours, is funded through the end of June, but the Legislature has not been able to appropriate the approximately $5.5 million it would take to run it for another year.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, former employees of the prison and the Washington County Commission, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy granted a temporary injunction Wednesday declaring that the prison closure was illegal.

She ordered the Maine Department of Corrections to operate the facility according to the law “until the Legislature either acts to repeal [the law establishing the facility] or ceases to fund Downeast Correctional Facility.”

Murphy’s order did not outline minimum staffing levels or how many prisoners should return, writing that “the details of everyday operation of DCF have been statutorily delegated to the commissioner.”

A bill to continue funding for the prison into the state’s next fiscal year — which begins July 1 — failed to gain enough support to override an expected LePage veto or to be enacted as an emergency measure, but is still technically alive in the legislative process. Meanwhile, lawmakers are debating another bill sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, to open a Washington County prison prerelease center in another location.

BDN staff writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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