The situation surrounding the Downeast Correctional Facility is a crisis of Gov. Paul LePage’s own making. But it may provide an opportunity to make needed improvements to the state’s correctional system.
That can only happen, however, if the current back-and-forth over the Washington County prison is put on hold to allow time for a thorough review of its place in the state’s correctional system. Such a review should also reexamine the relationship between the state’s prisons and county jails after the governor killed a coordinated system in 2015. And it should also include the governor’s new plan to release some low-risk prisoners so they can join the workforce, which is proceeding without the required oversight.
This brouhaha started May 19, when the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, Joseph Fitzpatrick, issued a news release announcing the closure of the small prison in Washington County. This news came as a shock to lawmakers from Washington County and others. Just last year, the Legislature approved a new pre-release center in Machiasport, home to the prison. As part of the legislative agreement, the prison was to remain open until the pre-release center was completed, according to Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who represents all of Washington County. The bill, which approved $149.7 million in borrowing to pay for improvements at the South Windham correctional center as well as the center in Machiasport, was signed into law by LePage.
Last week, the House and Senate passed a resolve to fund the Downeast Correctional Facility for two years. On Friday, Republican lawmakers said LePage had agreed to fund the Washington County prison for another nine months. A budget change package submitted by his administration also called for a review of the county jail system and its funding.
The Washington County prison has long been about more than just housing prisoners. In a region with few economic opportunities, the 46 jobs at the facility are an important source of income for local residents and businesses. Former Gov. John Baldacci proposed to close the prison but was persuaded not to because of its economic importance to Washington County.
This is an important part of any discussion of the facility’s future, whatever role it plays in the state corrections system.
There was further confusion surrounding the administration’s announced closure of the Washington County prison when lawmakers asked what would happen to the roughly 100 prisoners housed there. Corrections officials said they would be transferred to other state facilities, but lawmakers worried some would be released.
Those concerns were heightened last week when the governor issued a news release last week announcing “conditional commutations” of some low-risk offenders throughout the state prison system, so they could enter the state’s workforce. The news release does not mention the Downeast facility or the need to lower the state’s prison population. It details strict conditions for release but doesn’t explain what supports will be put in place to ensure former prisoners transition to the workforce.
The relevant statutes envision a prisoner petitioning the governor to commute his sentence. The governor then notifies the attorney general and the relevant district attorney well before a hearing on the commutation request is scheduled. The hearing must be announced in a local newspaper. The sentencing judge and prosecuting attorney can be asked to provide statements.
The governor followed none of these steps and didn’t include the Governor’s Board on Executive Clemency before commuting the sentences of 17 prisoners, all men, on Friday. On Tuesday, LePage said he was considering commuting the sentences of some female prisoners so they could work in the tourism industry, which faces a worker shortage.
This hasty action undermines confidence that the administration is really modernizing and improving the state prison system, as the governor’s news release promised.
Lawmakers and the governor should take a step back, conduct a thorough review of the state’s corrections system, including county jails and state prisons, with an eye toward the Downeast Correctional Facility’s role in it. Until such a review is complete, the prison should remain open. At the same time, the governor should not release any more prisoners without following the established process to ensure adequate oversight and more fully planning for their transition to the work force.