PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has granted more than a dozen prisoners early release, capping a tumultuous week that has left legislators uncertain of whether he will continue to push to close the state prison in Machiasport.
On Friday afternoon, LePage commuted the sentences of 17 prisoners whom the Department of Corrections deemed to be “lower-risk offenders,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.
The prisoners’ sentences were commuted on a number of conditions, including that they regularly report to probation officers, seek employment, not possess illegal weapons or drugs and not commit other crimes. The commutations will provide “pathways to employment” for the former inmates, according to the statement.
The prisoners who will be released early are non-violent offenders, according to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap.
“There were a couple burglaries, unlawful possession of scheduled drugs, theft by unauthorized taking, things like that,” said Dunlap, who must affix the state seal to a commutation. “Pretty much all non-violent crimes.”
The inmates were not immediately released Friday, as the commutation papers had to be delivered to the prisons where they are being held, Dunlap said. He declined to provide their names and said he did not know from where they would be released.
According to a list of names obtained by WMTW’s Paul Merrill that he posted on Twitter, former Belfast attorney William L. Dawson, 63, was among those released early Friday. Dawson was sentenced in March 2016 to 30 months in prison for embezzling nearly $500,000 from two elderly clients. He was disbarred a few months after being sentenced.
— Paul Merrill (@PaulMerrill207) May 26, 2017
Also on the list is Travis Wakefield, who was convicted of Class B theft in in 2016 after he and another man stole 10 handguns from a house in Waterboro.
Earlier on Friday, 16 inmates were transported from Maine Correctional Center in Windham to the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, according to Jim Mackie, who represents corrections officers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Mackie claimed the move was an effort to avoid media attention.
Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said that his department will help the released inmates find jobs in industries across the state that are struggling with labor shortages, but defered all questions about who was released to the governor’s office.
LePage appeared to be in a rush to complete the “unusual” commutation process, according to Dunlap. The secretary of state said he was in Old Town for an appointment Friday afternoon when he received a call from the governor’s office saying that he would be needed to seal the commutations.
“They said [LePage] would come to Old Town if he had to, to get me to do this,” said Dunlap. “He wanted to get it done today.”
The commutations come even as LePage appears to be backing off his plan to swiftly close the Downeast Correctional Facility as part of his proposed two-year budget.
On Friday, LePage sent the Legislature a proposal to fund the prison for another nine months, according to House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
Last week, the Maine Department of Corrections announced plans to close the prison in June and issued layoff notices to its 46 employees. But today the prison’s staff were issued notices that they will continue to be employed through mid-August, according to Mackie.
The plan to close Downeast had been met with bipartisan opposition in the Legislature, and lawmakers were frustrated that the Republican governor provided them with scant details before issuing the commutations on the Friday before a holiday weekend.
“The governor’s office does not talk to people, they just do things,” said Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias
LePage’s office did not respond to questions.
BDN reporter Bill Trotter contributed to this report.