MACHIASPORT, Maine — Maine Department of Corrections’ Commissioner Joseph Ponte confirmed Thursday that the Down East Correctional Facility in the village of Bucks Harbor is proposed for closure, jeopardizing at least 68 jobs.
Ponte said that while the state has been mired in a decade-long financial crisis, renovations and repairs at all six state-owned correctional facilities have been deferred. “The problem at Down East is that it started at the bottom of the list, in the worst condition,” Ponte said. “The state and the Department [of Corrections] never put any money into it.”
Glenn Davis, a Machias selectman who recently retired after decades as a maintenance director at Down East Correctional, said that money for repairs was an issue, but he also blamed on-site management for a lot of the problems. “They just ran that place into the ground,” he said Wednesday night. “They have no one but themselves to blame. It was pure mismanagement.”
Davis said he was rarely able to get materials to make necessary repairs. “We would have faucets running water all over the place and I couldn’t even get a washer,” Davis said. Attempts were made to interview current employees of the prison but their contract forbids them from speaking to news media.
Ponte said the prison is the only one currently proposed for closure. It is the third time that state officials have looked at closing the Down East Correctional Facility. The facility was targeted in 1994 and again in 1995. But according to stories published at that time in the Bangor Daily News, the prison survived closure because it was well-run financially. It was also estimated in 1997 that the prison saved area communities nearly $4 million annually by offering prisoners to paint churches, refurbish firetrucks, fight forest fires, work on road crews and perform many other community tasks. Prisoners continue to provide some of these services today.
Ponte said he is recommending the closure as part of his budget proposal after Gov. Paul LePage directed all departments to make cuts to account for a projected $25 million shortfall. Ponte said the operating budget of DECF is $6.5 million annually and that closing the facility would save $4 million a year.
The LePage administration, however, has asked the Department of Corrections to only cut $1.2 million from its budget, Washington County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said Thursday. “I am concerned that Washington County will bear the brunt and carry the load for the entire Department of Corrections,” she said.
Ponte said it would take at least $1 million to bring the prison up to building- and electrical-safety codes. Down East Correctional was created in 1985, according to the prison’s administrator Scott Jones. It previously had been a U.S. Air Force radar facility and was retrofitted 26 years ago. It houses 149 inmates who are serving terms of up to 15 years, many of them sex offenders. Jones would not comment on the proposal, referring all questions to Ponte.
Contacted as he was entering a Machias restaurant, Ponte said Thursday afternoon that Jones met with staff on Wednesday and Ponte met with them Thursday morning to discuss the proposed shutdown.
“We listened to them and explained the process for closure,” he said. He said the details of severance packages and job-seeking assistance have not been determined. “We will have to work on those negotiations with the Legislature,” Ponte said. He said employees seemed legitimately concerned and upset.
Ponte said only five percent of the prison’s inmates are from the Down East area, so he was not concerned about making visitation difficult for local prisoners’ families. “The inmate count across the state is actually down,” he said. “We have more capacity [at other facilities] than ever before.”
During a meeting of the Washington County Commissioners Thursday afternoon, Chairman Chris Gardner said the closure proposal alarmed him. “I hope the state takes a long look at its priorities,” he said. “Public safety is the fundamental mission of a government.
“I think this is all a result of the jail consolidation,” he said. “The state doesn’t have to solve its problems anymore. First the state took over our beds and it is now shutting down their own.”
Gardner added, “It always seems that rural Maine is taking it in the teeth. Rural Maine is tired, tired. They are closing our prisons, have closed our schools. Aren’t we part of the state of Maine? Everybody thinks rural Maine needs to be taken care of from Augusta. Southern Maine says it is tired of paying the way for northern Maine. OK then. Don’t, and get out of our way and mind your own business.”
Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith said Thursday that the relationship between his office and the Down East Correctional Facility should be touted statewide as “a model in cooperation. Not a day goes by that we are not in contact.” For instance, Smith said the K-9 cages for the sheriff’s office cruisers were built by prisoners and the two entities often share transportation of prisoners to southern Maine. “A closure will certainly affect the sheriff’s department operations,” he said.
Reaction by members of Washington County’s legislative delegation also was swift and in opposition. “I am strongly opposed to Commissioner Ponte’s disappointing and misguided proposal to close the Down East Correctional Facility,” Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Thursday morning. “As a major employer, the prison is important to Washington County’s struggling economy, and plays a key role in the life of the community.”
Raye said he has visited the prison several times and has always been impressed with the quality of work being done by its staff. “I have been in touch with the director of the prison to express my support for ensuring the future of the facility and its work force,” Raye said. “The Washington County legislative delegation has already requested a meeting with the governor, where we will urge him to reject the commissioner’s proposal.”
“I know how bad the budget is,” Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said. “I know cuts have to be made. But Washington County is not the place to cut.”
“This is far from a done deal,” Ponte said, referring more to the time the process will take rather than the decision to close the prison. He said his proposal will now go to the governor who will forward it to the Streamlining Committee, which is the governor’s budget-tightening group. “On October 28, I will go before the Streamlining Committee and they’ll make a decision from there,” he said.