The unannounced closure of a prison under cover of darkness is a sure sign of a failure to lead, and more fundamentally, to govern.
The LePage administration, using State Police personnel, removed prisoners from the Downeast Correctional Facility before dawn on Friday. Employees at the Washington County prison were given layoff notices.
The Machiasport prison has been a political football for years, with governors pledging to close it and local officials working to keep it open.
An analysis of the value of the prison and its roughly 50 jobs, both to the state corrections system and the local economy, has been missing from the conversation. The cost of operating the prison, about $5 million a year, is far less than the state has given away as tax incentives to some private businesses for the promise of jobs, which don’t always materialize.
In addition, the state’s corrections system is operated with little accountability or oversight. Oversight boards, which are required by law for the state’s prisons and county-run jails, are short on members or, in some cases, non-existent, an analysis by the BDN Maine Focus team found. When a citizen watchdog group reported to lawmakers about dangerous conditions at the state’s youth detention facility, Gov. Paul LePage disbanded the group. A panel that coordinated the state’s county jails and state prisons stopped meeting after LePage refused to appoint enough members.
Lawmakers should focus attention on this fundamental lack of oversight and coordination, not just the Washington County problems.
That, of course, doesn’t excuse the administration’s unilateral action in shuttering the Downeast facility, which, like a similar but less dramatic move last year, is a powerplay, not a thoughtful plan.
The unannounced closure and transfer of prisoners to the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston was widely condemned by lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats. “The people of Washington County deserve better than this,” Senate Republican leaders Mike Thibodeau, Garrett Mason and Amy Volk said in a statement Friday.
“In addition to fighting for funding in the budget, legislators in 2016 reached agreement on a government facilities bond that mandated a correctional facility exist in Washington County. This action appears contrary to the agreement that was reached,” they added.
Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who worked last year to maintain funding for the jail called the governor “a dictator” who “doesn’t care about people.”
The Legislature is currently considering the future of the Washington County prison. LD 1704 would provide $5.5 million to keep the prison open through June 2019. The bill also calls on the Department of Corrections to analyze the effects of a potential closure. Earlier this week, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-1 in favor of the new funding.
Last year, LePage attempted to close the facility as part of his two-year state budget proposal and in May 2017 announced plans to close the prison the following month. Layoff notices were given to 46 employees, and LePage said he planned to issue conditional commutations to some prisoners to move them out of the jail, including to a work re-entry program.
Instead, the prison was funded until June 2018 and the Department of Corrections was supposed to study its role in the state prison system.
Less than a year later, the fight continues. If outraged lawmakers are sincere about keeping the prison open, they need to ensure passage of emergency legislation or seek a court injunction to reverse Friday’s action.
They should also realize that the fight over Downeast is not an isolated incident. The governor has said he will block implementation of voter-approved Medicaid expansion. He has stalled rules needed to increase access to naloxone, an overdose reversing drug. If they are outraged by his secretive closure of a prison, they should also be outraged by these and other refusals to follow the law and stand up to him on these issues as well.
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