MACHIAS, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s unannounced closure of Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport on Friday has left many different kinds of businesses in eastern Washington County without workers.
County small business owners, already beleaguered by long-term erosion of the region’s core industries, woke up Friday to learn that work-release employees expected to be at work that day were on buses to other parts of the state.
A human resources manager at the Lobster Trap, Carol Geel saw the prisoner transport buses and Maine State Police teams that had arrived at the prison at 4:30 a.m. Her company, a wholesale seafood dealer, lost eight work-release employees — a third of its workforce — at its Machiasport facility, she said.
“We were just stunned,” Geel said Friday. “If you go to work and that many of your employees are gone, what are you supposed to do?”
LePage “has no idea how this impacts not just the businesses, but the employees and their families,” Geel added. “It is a terrible decision and the way he did it — no notice, nothing — shows no consideration.”
In a surprise early Friday morning operation, the LePage administration moved 63 prisoners from Machias to facilities outside Washington County. Some had as recently as Thursday worked at local businesses, said Jeanne Peacock, whose husband, Bob, is a prison advisory board member.
Half the prison’s inmates typically participate in the program, said JJ Tibbetts, a correctional trades instructor at Downeast.
“This was a raid,” Peacock said as she finished lunch at The Bluebird Ranch Family Restaurant on Main Street. “It’s like Gestapo tactics. I have never heard of anything being done like this.”
Work-release inmates paint churches and schools, do carpentry and road repairs, lay out boat docks at state parks and make inmate clothing. Twenty percent of their wages goes back into the state’s General Fund, Tibbetts said.
“This is a well-run prison. The prisoners get good vocational training there, and the prison employs good people,” Peacock said. “What are those employees or their families going to do with a March 1 deadline?”
Downeast staff have been placed on paid administrative leave and received layoff notices effective March 3, according to union representatives.
Susan West, chairwoman of the Downeast Board of Visitors, was among several residents who criticized LePage for the sudden, secret nature of the closure, which included security aircraft overhead.
“Nobody knew a thing. Nobody,” West said, calling the layoffs of 39 prison workers “a terrible travesty.”
“You take that kind of career away from people and it’s a blow to the community,” West added. “I don’t know where else they’re going to be able to find employment. This is a tough area.”
Cutbacks had reduced the prison’s staff from 80 workers, Tibbetts said.
Bruce and Sue Dennison of East Machias said they were baffled by the closure. LePage had said for years he would shut the facility, but recent statements by state legislators made that seem unlikely, they said.
“I think it’s sad that one person has the power to close a facility like this,” said Sue Dennison, who co-owns Roy Toys, a wooden toy manufacturer, with her husband.
The prisoners employed at Lobster Trap earned $12 an hour, same as other employees, and were good workers. The business, which also has facilities in Addison and Steuben, has used the work-release program for six years, Geel said.
The inmates were a good resource in season, when 15 to 25 would be hired as part of a staff of 60, but even better in wintertime, when other workers would seek layoffs, Geel said.
“People don’t want to work. We advertise on Facebook, at career centers, in newspapers,” Geel said. “Last year I had 18 people apply for jobs. Not a single one showed up for an interview.”
Her business’ no-nonsense drug policy scares away many employees, she said.
Lobster Trap provides housing, transportation and an annual $1 an hour raise to inmates. Some stay on when their prison terms finish, Geel said, calling the program “an excellent way to reduce recidivism.”
This year’s crew was the best yet, with one inmate whose pledge to stay on possibly threatened by the closure, she said. He was taken from the prison on Friday despite having only 18 more days to serve, Geel said.
Geel hopes the inmate can return to Machiasport when his term is up but she isn’t sure she should count on it.
“We don’t even know where he is,” she said.
BDN staff writer Jake Bleiberg contributed to this report.
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Correction: An earlier report stated that some of the Downeast Correctional Facility layoffs would take effect March 1. A LePage administration representative who had provided that information later noted that the effective date would be March 3.