As a 14-year employee at Downeast Correctional Facility, I could say a lot about what Gov. Paul LePage’s illegal closure of the facility on Feb. 9 meant to me and the people who work there. The sudden loss of income has been stressful and scary for all of us, as we have families to feed and bills to pay. We lost our health insurance and have had to make very difficult decisions about moving or retiring before we were ready.
Despite all of that, what I want to talk about is the other side of the fence.
For years, we were a medium-security facility. There were only community restitution crews that mowed town cemeteries, painted schools and town offices, and so on. Back then, when you asked a prisoner who was about to be released where he was headed, he would reply “the homeless shelter.”
We saw these prisoners come back into the system time and time again. With no money in their pockets, they had nowhere else to go. A lot of prisoners do not have the family support they need to stay out of prison.
Five years ago, the administration came to facility and said it was changing to minimum security, and the prisoners would be working in the community unsupervised at real jobs.
We all laughed and said it wouldn’t work.
We were wrong.
Prisoners left with money in their pockets to use for rent, food or whatever they needed. No more homeless shelters. They have pride. They get educated and rehabilitated, which is the whole point of corrections — to be corrected. While at Downeast Correctional, money was taken out of their checks for room and board, child support, fines and restitution, with the rest going into savings accounts. Prisoners sent money home to their families to buy their children birthday and Christmas presents.
The night we shut down, a prisoner handed me a money slip to send home, and I asked why it was for so much. He was sending money home for his brother’s college tuition. This is what this state needs.
There are jobs in Washington County that aren’t for everyone. Some are seasonal, some are physically demanding, and some aren’t the best paying. The prisoners fill these jobs. Every single week, when the local paper comes out, the jobs these prisoners were doing are advertised, but no one fills them.
We are a family at Downeast Correctional. We are fighting for our jobs because we need good-paying jobs with benefits, but we are also fighting for these prisoners. It’s nice to know you can actually help people and get paid for it.
Since the closure, story after story has come out from former inmates who have reached out to say how much the facility turned their lives around. While I knew many of them, it was amazing to see how many people’s lives were changed by the opportunities and tools Downeast Correctional provided them to start a new chapter in their lives.
But the facility also is important for Washington County. We are a poor county, and there are not a lot of good-paying jobs. The facility is critical to our economy. If lawmakers say they care about rural Maine but vote to close Downeast Correctional, they need to know they are delivering yet another major blow to Washington County.
We ask legislators to get the facts about Downeast Correctional. The governor has said the facility was falling down, but that’s simply wrong. We had recent upgrades, including new boilers and windows that cut the heating costs by more than half. The facility has passed health inspections. It’s been invested in with upgrades and repairs, and it would be a huge waste to throw that all away.
The governor also tried to say it was the most expensive facility in the state to house a prisoner, but that’s flat-out wrong. Numbers from his own Department of Corrections show it has the second lowest daily cost for housing prisoners. Downeast Correctional should be a model for the way corrections should be, and it should be expanded, not eliminated.
We respectfully ask the Legislature to do the right thing and vote yes on Rep. Will Tuell’s bill — LD 1704 — to fund Downeast Correctional Facility. It’s good for the inmates, good for Washington County’s employers and economy, and good for the hard-working people I am proud to call my co-workers.
Mark Greenlaw worked for 14 years as a correctional officer at Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. He lives in Lubec.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.