AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate overwhelmingly voted on Wednesday to fund a Machiasport prison slated for a hasty closure by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, setting up a showdown with the governor as he readies a vague plan to commute state inmates’ sentences.
The joint order from Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, would fund the 100-inmate Downeast Correctional Facility into the next state budget year, which could allow union representatives to file an injunction to block the planned June closure of the prison announced last week.
It passed the Senate in a 30-3 vote on Wednesday and faces further action in the House of Representatives. Maker and other Washington County representatives have been fighting proposals to close prison since LePage first proposed it in 2011.
In a floor speech, Maker said the prison’s closure would “destroy our county” and spike unemployment in the Machias areas.
The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted earlier this year to recommend that Downeast stay open, but LePage’s office has said closing it would save $5 million.
Last week, the administration issued layoff notices to the 46 employees. As rumors swirled of imminent prisoner releases on Tuesday, LePage’s office said he began a process to grant conditional commutations to low-risk Maine prisoners, pitching it as a work re-entry program.
Selected inmates in Machiasport, at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren and at Maine Correctional Center in Windham were expected to be released by LePage’s executive order Wednesday, but that didn’t happen.
“We’re a little flabbergasted ourselves, here,” Jim Mackie, representative for the corrections officers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Wednesday evening.
“Everything that was supposed to happen today didn’t happen,” he said. “The plan had been set, but nobody left. It’s pretty hard to guess what our governor may be doing.”
The union representing employees has pledged to fight it, saying the Maine Department of Corrections can’t close a facility that is funded by the Legislature, a position buttressed by an April advisory opinion from Attorney General Janet Mills’ office to Maker saying LePage “cannot put appropriations to a different purpose than that specified in the budget or other law.”
The corrections department told the Legislature’s budget-writing committee in written responses on Wednesday that a question on the administration’s authority is “a question for the Governor’s Office.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett told the Bangor Daily News in a Wednesday email that no prisoners had been released, but she didn’t return requests for comment on the joint order or the administration’s authority to close the prison.
BDN reporter Alex Acquisto contributed to this story.