MACHIASPORT, Maine — Downeast Correctional Facility, which overlooks the local fishing village of Bucks Harbor, once again is proposed for closure as a cost-saving measure in the latest proposed state budget.
Proposals to close or replace the local state correctional facility, which employs 51 people and incarcerates 150 more, date back to at least the early 1990s and seem to resurface every few years. Each time, state legislators, area officials and business leaders from surrounding communities circle the wagons to oppose the idea, saying the facility plays a vital economic role — not just by employing local residents but by providing productive work-release inmates to area businesses that otherwise would have a hard time keeping their employee rosters filled.
Before it was a state prison, the facility served as a base for the Air Force from the mid-1950s until the late 1980s, when it was turned over to the Department of Corrections.
At a hearing last week before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said there is a reason the closure of the Machiasport prison keeps coming up during budget discussions. Reducing the state’s incarceration rate count, perhaps by increasing the number of inmates who are monitored with electronic ankle bracelets, so it could shut down Downeast Correctional Facility would save the state around $5 million per year.
“It’s hard to rationalize a prison for 150 offenders in Washington County,” Fitzpatrick said.
The commissioner added, however, that he believes the department should have “some sort of presence” in Washington County, perhaps by contracting with a private facility or working with nonprofits, but he did not go into detail about the possible scenarios. He said he frequently has heard from Washington County employers, who say they have a hard time keeping positions filled because many people have drug-dependency issues.
“ The drug crisis is overriding everything,” Fitzpatrick said.
Several people from Washington County were at the hearing to speak out against the proposal, including legislators, some employees of the prison and area business owners.
Will Tuell, a state representative from East Machias, presented the committee with a petition that he said was signed by 2,500 people who oppose the closure of the prison. He said it would be a “folly” to put electronic monitors on prisoners and then release them early.
“Whether you are a law-and-order conservative or a reform-minded liberal, this proposal ought to bother you,” Tuell said.
David Whitney, owner of Whitney Wreaths and other businesses, said that the boost the prison’s work-release inmates provides to his workforce, especially during wreath season, is invaluable.
“We don’t hire inmates on a lark. We hire them because we need help,” Whitney told the committee. “We are dependent on this workforce.”
Whitney added that inmates are paid just as much as anyone who gets a job at one of his companies, depending on what the position is. He said the inmates are eager to work, are respectful and do a good job.
“Please think long and hard before you close this facility,” Whitney said. “We really need it.”
David Bell, general manager of Cherryfield Foods, said the availability of inmates from the prison helps the firm during the late-summer blueberry harvest, which coincides with the busiest time of year for lobster fishing in Maine. The amount of payroll that Cherryfield Foods spends each year on inmate pay has been in excess of $600,000, Bell said, much of which ends up going back to the state’s general fund to cover each inmate’s transportation and prison boarding costs.
John Mills, a guard at the prison for the past 18 years, said the facility is in decent physical shape and, with only five guards on staff, has low personnel costs that would be enviable at any other prison in the country. He said the work release program helps transition inmates back into society and could be even more effective if they had the chance to learn high-demand skills such as welding or other building trades.
“Let’s face it, they’re not going to go to Yale or Harvard [when they get out],” Mills said.
Christine Therrien, the town manager in neighboring Machias, said that not only have the prison’s inmates helped keep local businesses productive, they have assisted nearby towns by plowing snow from local roads and renovating the former local train station into offices for the Chamber of Commerce, among other things.
“It would be a devastating loss to all the [surrounding] communities,” Therrien said of closing the prison and relocating work-release inmates to other facilities elsewhere in Maine. “We sorely depend on what they do. I say, ‘send us more.’”
A date for when the committee will meet again to discuss the proposed Department of Corrections budget has not yet been set.