MACHIASPORT, Maine — Despite recent political wrangling to save Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, prisoners are being moved in preparation for the facility’s closure.
On Thursday, 15 prisoners were shifted to other correctional sites in the state, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick confirmed. He said that the “routine moves” were conducted in anticipation of the shuttering of the position.
The prison’s future has been in limbo since mid-May, when the facility’s 46 employees received layoff notices. The news drew sharp criticism from Down East officials and brought about efforts to save the prison because of its key role in the local economy.
The transfers come less than a week after Gov. Paul LePage granted early release to 17 prisoners from multiple facilities, which he said was motivated by the desire to provide inmates with “pathways to employment.”
Democrats and some Washington County Republicans such as Sen. Joyce Maker of Calais and Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias condemned the move to close the Machiasport prison. Lawmakers said the governor was considering ways to fund the prison for another nine months, and appeared to be closing in on a deal. Those talks apparently fell apart.
Last week, House of Representatives voted to pass a joint order sponsored by Maker that directs the Legislature’s budget-writing committee to draft a bill funding the 100-inmate Downeast Correctional Facility for the next two years.
In spite of this recent uncertainty about whether the prison would close and how soon, Fitzpatrick said the governor’s message has been consistent.
“The governor’s been very clear to us that he has not changed his intention to close that facility,” Fitzpatrick said.
LePage reiterated during a radio interview earlier this week that he would shutter the prison, saying it’s a “very bad place” and “it’s not fit to live in.”
Fitzpatrick declined to comment on the governor’s concerns about the prison.
The commissioner said his department had no immediate plans to ship off more of the roughly 70 prisoners left at the facility. Fitzpatrick said the department would continue to prepare for the shuttering of the prison, though he wasn’t certain it would happen as early as June 10, as the state initially planned.
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.
BDN writers Michael Shepherd, Alex Acquisto and Jake Bleiberg contributed to this report.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.