As you’ve likely heard by now, these are turbulent times for Washington County in Augusta. On May 19, the Maine Department of Corrections delivered pink slips to all 46 employees of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport in an attempt by the governor to circumvent the Legislature to shut the facility down for good.
Since then, the only certainty for these employees and the residents of Washington County has been uncertainty.
Shortly after the pink slips were delivered, I also received word of a plan that was in motion to commute the sentences of up to 75 prisoners throughout the state to free up enough beds in the system to make room for the Downeast inmates elsewhere. Other prisoners from Downeast, a minimum security facility, would be moved to maximum security facilities throughout the state prison system, quickly making this Washington County problem a statewide problem.
Republican Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias and I immediately sprang into action, fighting the decision to commute sentences and the decision to lay off the entire staff, effectively closing Downeast and permanently damaging the local community.
To reaffirm the Legislature’s support of the facility, I introduced a resolution directing the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee report out a bill that provides funding for the operation of the Downeast Correctional Facility for the next two years to the Senate. The resolution received broad support, passing the Senate on a vote of 30-3 and the House unanimously.
Shortly after its passage, the administration presented a budget change package to extend funding for Downeast until the end of next March while a study of the county jail system takes place. We also were told that commutations were off the table and the pink slips were being withdrawn for at least the next nine months.
But this small victory was short lived as that all changed within the hour, when I received word that 17 prisoners had been set free, one with more than 200 days left on his sentence, and the prison staff were informed they would be terminated in August, not next March as the administration suggested earlier.
This is completely and totally unacceptable. Forty-six people depend on this facility to provide for their families. Several area businesses rely on the workforce provided by the prison to mitigate a chronic workforce shortage in the area. More than 100 prisoners have the opportunity to participate in an exceptional work program through the facility that allows them to earn an average of $10 per hour to pay room and board, restitution, child support, taxes and save a little pocket change to have a buffer when they are released from prison.
There is absolutely no doubt that the sudden closure of this facility with no replacement facility in sight will have a huge ripple effect on the local economy. While 46 jobs may not sound significant, a layoff of this magnitude will have the same impact on Washington County as a loss of more than 400 jobs in Cumberland County, which doesn’t face the same economic and employment struggles.
This is why we struck a deal last session with the passage of LD 1447 to fund a pre-release center run by the state in Washington County. This deal received a unanimous vote in the Legislature, and it was signed by the governor. That deal also included additional funding to expand the capacity at the prison in Windham.
It’s absolutely critical for Washington County’s economy and for the safety of the entire state to see these projects through before anyone considers closing any facility in this state.
But in his haste, the governor has jumped the gun, releasing prisoners early and keeping the hardworking employees of Downeast Correctional Facility in a gut-wrenching limbo.
It is apparent that we can’t rely on the governor’s word, as it is likely to change from hour to hour and day to day, which is why I am more determined than ever to fight to fund Downeast for the next two years.
As the senator representing Washington County, settling for anything less is totally out of the question.
Republican Sen. Joyce Maker represents District 6, which consists of all of Washington County and Gouldsboro, Sullivan, Winter Harbor and part of the East Hancock Unorganized Territory in Hancock County.