September 23, 2019
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As LePage eyes early release for inmates, lawmakers prep fight to save Down East prison

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
A car sits parked outside a security gate at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport last week. The state prison is again being proposed for closure as cost-saving measure in the proposed state budget.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine lawmakers said Tuesday that they’re considering a bid to fund a Machiasport prison slated for closure by Gov. Paul LePage as the governor partially confirmed rumors that he’d be commuting prisoners’ sentences.

The Republican governor’s office pitched the conditional commutation plan — details of which were scarce Tuesday afternoon — as a workforce re-entry program in a news release.

But Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, and a union official said that the LePage administration was trying to create space in Maine’s prison system for Downeast Correctional Facility inmates by moving to commute at least 45 sentences.

Last week, the Maine Department of Corrections announced plans to close the 100-inmate Washington County prison in June, issuing layoff notices to all 46 employees and saying inmates will be moved to other facilities in the state prison system.

However, opponents of the move have said that LePage doesn’t have the authority to close the prison because it’s funded by statute and the union representing employees said on Friday that it plans to file an injunction to block it.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he’s “committed” to submitting a joint order that would fund Downeast Correctional Facility into the next two-year budget cycle beginning in July.

He said the aim is to allow an injunction that can point to the Legislature’s intent to keep it open.

Through a spokeswoman, Maker said she’s considering a joint order as an option. It would take two-thirds votes in the Maine House and Senate.

“We need to make sure that continues to run and the prisoners continue to be prisoners,” Jackson said.

LePage’s confirmation of the commutations — though his office didn’t specify a number — came after rumors have swirled that the administration plans to commute dozens of sentences. In a news release last week, Maker said 75 prisoners could be released.

On Tuesday, Maker told WABI that she has been told that the LePage administration has already commuted sentences at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, although LePage spokesman Peter Steele said none have been issued. Maker said the administration had representatives at Downeast working on commuting other sentences.

Krysta West, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, said the total between those two locations was 37 commutations and Jim Mackie, a representative for the Maine affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional workers, said eight more prisoners are expected to leave Maine Correctional Facility in Windham on Wednesday.

“They’re trying to make this go as fast as they can,” Mackie said.

The LePage administration hasn’t confirmed those figures. On Tuesday, his office issued a news release saying the administration has begun submitting recommendations to the governor for conditional commutations “that will provide inmates from throughout the Maine State Prison System with pathways to employment.”

But it didn’t provide specifics on the number of prisoners, where and how soon they would be released, with Steele saying in an email that “specific numbers and dates are not available because no conditional commutations have been granted at this time.”

 



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