July 18, 2018
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Judge leaves fate of Down East prison to lawmakers, who remain deeply split

Judy Harrison | BDN
Judy Harrison | BDN
In this file photo from March 5, Gale Tibbetts of Columbia and Megan Galligan of Machias hold signs outside the Capital Judicial Center in support of keeping the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport open. A superior court justice has reiterated that the court won’t step in to save the correctional facility from closure because the Legislature is the only entity with the power to do so.
By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

A superior court justice has reiterated that the court won’t step in to save the beleaguered Downeast Correctional Facility from closure because, she wrote in a new ruling, the Legislature is the only entity with the power to do so.

Meanwhile, Washington County lawmakers have said they won’t support a bill to replace the prison with a pre-release community work program facility because they are focusing their attention on saving the Machiasport prison.

The suit by the Washington County Commission, Attorney General Janet Mills and former workers at the Machiasport prison sought to restore full staffing and inmate counts that existed prior to Feb. 9, when Gov. Paul LePage suddenly closed it without warning.

Plaintiffs in a case that was filed just after LePage shuttered the prison won a partial victory in March when Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy ruled that the governor didn’t have the authority to close the prison without legislative approval or unless funding for the prison ran out, but she stopped short of stating how many employees or inmates should be returned.

In response, Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick reopened the prison in late March with five employees and about a dozen prisoners.

“Unless the Legislature chooses to pass legislation providing more specific instructions to the commissioner, his discretion under current Maine law plainly includes ‘general supervisions, management and control of the research and planning, grounds, buildings, property, officers, employees and clients of any correction facility, detention facility or correctional program,” wrote Murphy in a new order, dated April 5. “It is entirely up to the Legislature to decide what if any funding will be appropriated to continue operations of the DCF. No court has the authority to appropriate funds.”

David Webbert, who represents plaintiffs in the suit, claimed a “partial victory” based on language in the order that states “it is also conceivable that operations have so diminished that staff and community members and businesses continue to be adversely affected.”

“The unions see this helpful language as supporting legal claims for damages and other remedies based on the harms found by the court,” wrote Webbert in an email to the Bangor Daily News.

Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, who is among the Washington County lawmakers fighting to keep the prison open in the face of the LePage administration’s arguments that it is too inefficient and needs too many repairs, said Monday that “consensus” is forming around LD 1704, which seeks to fund the prison for another year while the Department of Corrections studies the ramifications of its potential closure.

Maker said another bill that was under development, which would have created a work pre-release center in Washington County with funding from a nearly $150 million bond authorized in 2016, has been abandoned.

“It’s not over yet,” said Maker. “It won’t be over until we get this issue where we want it to be.”

The funding bill has already been defeated by all but seven members of the House Republican caucus in a preliminary vote, but there is evidence that balance could be changing.

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said Monday that he is frustrated the pre-release bill has been killed but he now supports funding for Downeast Correctional Facility past June 30 while a plan for the pre-release center is developed and built.

Fredette, who has voted against additional funding in the past, did not say how much more he will support but said it’s “probably less than the $5.5 million” it would cost to operate the prison for another year.

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