May 24, 2018
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Prison closure would reduce firefighter head count in Washington County

Michael C. York | BDN
Michael C. York | BDN
Joseph Ponte
By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff

BUCKS HARBOR, Maine — Closing the Down East Correctional Facility would relocate about two dozen low-security inmates who have been trained by the Maine Forest Service to assist in fighting wildfires within Washington County.

Mothballing the facility, which is now at capacity with 149 inmates, has been proposed by Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte. He claims reassigning the minimum- and medium-security prisoners now housed there to the five other adult prisons statewide would save the state $4 million a year. The prison’s annual budget is now $6.5 million.

Ponte’s proposal wasn’t included in recommendations made in late November by the Task Force to Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services, a bipartisan group tasked by Gov. Paul LePage to find ways to cut spending as one means of reducing a hefty state budget deficit. The task force sent the proposal back to the governor’s office. No new proposal has since been put forth, and the budget now under consideration does not call for closing the facility.

Ultimately, however, the facility’s fate rests in the hands of the Legislature. The fiscal pros and cons of closing the Bucks Harbor prison will be discussed at some point by the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, according to Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, a retired Maine State Police officer who is now a member of that committee.

Burns was among a regional delegation of legislators who hosted a Dec. 19 visit to the Bucks Harbor facility by LePage, Ponte and Dan Billings, the governor’s chief counsel.

“We invited them, and they saw for themselves that this is not a decrepit old rat hole, which is how some people have described it,” Burns said Tuesday. “It needs upkeep, but it’s safe, it’s warm and it’s comfortable. I think they do a remarkable job there, both for the community and for these people who hopefully will make something of themselves. I think it’s helpful for these people to get out into the community and to give something back.”

While not committing to keeping the prison open during that visit, Burns said LePage was “very receptive” to concerns about how a closure would affect Washington County communities within a region with Maine’s highest unemployment rate.

“The projection is that it would eliminate 68 direct jobs, and a total of 128 jobs if you include the indirect jobs,” Burns said Tuesday. “It certainly would have an incredibly negative impact.”

Minimum security inmates are organized into small work crews that, under the watchful eyes of prison guards, staff public works projects outside the prison, doing everything from road crew work for the Maine Department of Transportation to painting local community churches. At any given time, the prison’s population includes between 20 and 30 inmates who have been trained at the prison by the Maine Forest Service to assist with fighting wildfires.

“They’ve certainly been a good crew for us,” said Bill Williams, the state’s chief forest ranger. “We’ll use them when there’s significant fire activity. While they are a great resource, they are not our only resources. We train between 1,000 and 1,500 people a year through our wildfire training academy, including forest industry personnel who work in the woods.

“We’ve lost singe groups before,” he said of the possibility of Down East inmates no longer being available. “We have a very dynamic roster. Some years our firefighting ranks grow, and some years they don’t. It’s a very fluid and dynamic process.”

Williams said the Maine Forest Service is involved in a number of regional manpower alliances that can import trained firefighters as wildfire activity requires, even crews from Canada. The agency also has a prison training program similar to the one in Washington County at Maine’s Charleston Correctional Facility.

The Down East Correctional Facility was established in 1985, when the state took ownership of what was once a U.S. Air Force radar installation. The facility has been targeted for closure twice before, in 1994 and 1995. As a result of deferred maintenance over the past 26 years, Commissioner Ponte estimates it would cost the state $1 million to bring the facility up to code.

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