MACHIASPORT, Maine — Layoff notices have been issued to all 46 employees at the Downeast Correctional Facility state prison, state officials confirmed Friday, which will result in the closure of the facility next month.
The last day for staff at the Machiasport prison will be June 10, which is the same day the elimination of five educational positions at Long Creek Youth Development Center will go into effect, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said in a press release Friday afternoon.
Fitzpatrick did not immediately return calls for comment.
The approximately 100 inmates at the Downeast prison will be transferred to other state facilities, according to Maine Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Jody Breton.
Breton said DOC has been to the Machiasport facility a couple times this year to discuss the possibility of permanent closure. “I think everyone is sort of expecting it,” she said Friday.
Fitzpatrick said earlier in the day on Friday that he could not comment on whether all DCF inmates will be relocated to other facilities.
In a release issued Friday afternoon by the Senate Republican Office, some legislators expressed concern about what the closure might mean for the state’s capacity to incarcerate people sentenced to serve time behind bars.
“The people of Washington County are very disheartened by this news,” Sen. Joyce Maker said in the release. “If we have any more trials in the state, we are going to have to let them off as well because without Downeast [Correctional Facility], there are literally no more beds for prisoners in this state. To me, this sends a bad message that Maine is soft on crime, and it isn’t fair to the victims of the crimes that have been committed.”
Democrats, too, condemned Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to close the Downeast facility.
“This is a continuous pattern where Gov. LePage has tried to outsource and privatize state-run facilities and it’s costing Mainers their jobs,” Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, and chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee said in a separate press release Friday.
Jim Mackie, representative for the corrections officers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, “It’s our opinion that (the DOC) does not have the authority to do that,” and that he will seek an “injunctive release” to stop the closure.
The prison has repeatedly been recommended for closure over the years and again found itself on the state budget chopping block this past winter. Standing before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in February, Fitzpatrick said closure of the facility would save the state around $5 million.
After hearing impassioned pleas from Washington County officials and business leaders, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee voted to fund the prison for another two years.
The Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee tabled the decision to close the correctional facility; regardless, Fitzpatrick said Friday, the budget “exists as it exists, so we have to treat is as real.”
But Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner told a different story.
“The Governor cannot unilaterally amend statutes without violating the separation of powers provisions in … the Maine Constitution,” Pistner wrote in an April 27 email to Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, after Maker asked whether or not the Governor could opt to shut down the correctional facility, regardless of how the Legislature votes on his budget proposal.
Pistner, who said her deduction was not the official opinion of the Attorney General’s office, went on to say, “Similarly, the current budget establishes the Downeast Correctional Facility as a discrete program by making appropriations specific to this facility.”
“A program so established cannot be eliminated by the executive branch,” she said.
“This is true even in the extraordinary circumstances when the governor is authorized … to curtail spending based on a determination that state spending will exceed anticipated income,” Pistner wrote.
“In the absence of express statutory authority, the Governor cannot put appropriations to a different purpose than that specified in the budget or other law,” Pistner concluded.
Closure of the correctional facility that overlooks the Bucks Harbor fishing village will put a considerable strain on the local economy, which has come to rely on inmate labor, Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien said Friday.
The surrounding municipalities have built a symbiotic relationship with the inmates over the years by employing them for work, whether it be on a carpentry or renovation project, mowing town cemeteries or helping with the blueberry harvest.
“They’ve saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years,” Therrien said. Inmate labor “drives this economy and keeps these businesses going.” And that paid labor, in turn, allows the inmates to earn restitution and learn skills they can put to use when they are released, she said.
Not to mention the jobs the correctional facility brings to Washington County, which “everybody knows struggles,” Therrien said. Removing those jobs from the communities will have a “tremendous impact,” she said.
“It’s just a huge resource for us down here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the legislative committee that has voted in favor of keeping Downeast Correctional Facility open for another two years.