AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s dismantling of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport must halt while the Legislature decides whether to fund the prison for another year and a lawsuit to prevent its closure moves forward, a Superior Court judge said Wednesday.
At the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta, Justice Michaela Murphy announced the “stand down agreement,” reached by attorneys for the Washington County commissioners, Gov. Paul LePage and the unions that represent laid-off prison employees.
The announcement follows the governor’s abrupt closure of the Washington County prison late last week.
Murphy had been scheduled to hold a hearing on a motion for a temporary injunction to keep the Maine Department of Corrections from shutting down the facility. The judge said she would confer with lawyers Friday to discuss the status of the case.
Brent Davis, legal counsel to the governor, asked that the hearing be continued so LePage could obtain outside legal counsel, after the Maine attorney general’s office declined to represent LePage in the matter.
Washington County and the town of Machiasport on Tuesday sued the DOC after prisoners were removed from the facility at 4:30 a.m. Friday on LePage’s orders. Employees were put on paid administrative leave until March 3, when they are expected to be laid off.
DOC employees began removing beds, sewing machines and other items Tuesday, Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner said after Wednesday’s brief hearing.
The agreement would allow perishable items, medications and clothing to be removed from the Machiasport prison but not beds or equipment.
“We see this as a good thing for the process,” Gardner said of the agreement. “This is that moment — that breathing period [we need]. Everybody was acting way too fast. We thought it was not in the spirit of the legislative process so we are hoping today is a step in that right direction.”
He said a bill to provide $5.5 million to keep the facility open was unanimously endorsed Tuesday by members of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
A vote in the House and Senate on the measure could come as early as Thursday.
Gardner also said that the governor used “simple math” to determine how much the facility costs to run.
“I have struggled to understand the governor’s rationale around this,” he said after the hearing. “I don’t think anybody in the state of Maine has truly seen the numbers around this facility. The governor keeps speaking about this $5.4 million that it costs to run and there’s only 60 prisoners. He does simple math and says, ‘Look how expensive it is.’
“Well, that really leaves out a lot of details,” the commissioner continued. “Number one, $5.4 million is the total cost if the facility was at full staff, full capacity, which the governor himself has made sure hasn’t gone on through the department and the commissioner. They has systematically reduced the number of prisoners in the facility [over the past two years]. That is their choice, but by doing that, they have lowered the efficiency.”
The Machiasport prison is described on the DOC’s website as “a minimum security institution with a prisoner count of 148.”
Gardner also said that about half of the prisoners work in the community and a portion of their income goes back into the DOC’s budget but the governor’s costs does not include an offset for that income.
The issue underlying the lawsuit applies to every community in Maine, not just Washington County, he said.
“This is not a Washington County issue,” he said. “This is an issue about corrections in general. It’s an issue about the process in Augusta and not allowing them to unilaterally close this facility. For those in the other parts of the state who think this may not be affected by this, if any governor, whether it be this one or any other is allowed to unilaterally circumvent the Legislature, the old adage, you know, applies — soon it will be your ox they gore.”
The prison is located on the site of a former Air Force station on the outskirts of Bucks Harbor, a fishing village in Machiasport, according to Bangor Daily News archives. The buildings used by the state as a prison since 1985 were the mess hall and barracks for the U.S. Air Force 907th Radar Squadron.
It first was slated for closure by the DOC in 1993, but saved when the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee restored the $3 million it took to run the facility then. At that time, 135 inmates, about 60 percent of whom were sex offenders, were housed at the facility. The last-minute appropriation reportedly saved 62 jobs with a payroll of $2.5 million.
Since then, multiple efforts to close the facility have been stopped by Washington County legislators and community leaders.
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