November 21, 2019
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Janet Mills cuts deal to end the long fight over closing a Washington County prison

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
A car sits parked outside a security gate at the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport in February 2017.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills announced an agreement with Washington County legislators on Friday to build a new pre-release center on the grounds of a closed Machiasport prison instead of building one elsewhere Down East against the county delegation’s wishes.

The Democratic governor’s office said the facility would house up to 50 minimum-security prisoners and employ 15 people. It would cost between $6.5 million and $8 million in funds authorized in a 2016 bond, and would be built on the site of the Downeast Correctional Facility.

The shuttered prison has been a point of contention between Washington County officials and the administrations of Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, who rushed to close it in February 2018 and later lost a lawsuit that forced him to reopen it temporarily with minimal staffing and inmates through that June.

After two Washington County lawmakers introduced bills to reopen it this year, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told the Legislature it could cost as much as $17.3 million to rehabilitate the aging prison and $9.4 million to build a new facility on the grounds. He said neither was feasible, so the state was looking to buy or lease an existing property in the region.

That led to criticism from Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, since that new property would have likely been in or near the relatively populated county seat of Machias. He said last month that isn’t “going to fly” and urged the state to use the Bucks Harbor site that it has.

The department estimated it would cost between $2.1 million and $3.1 million to retrofit a building elsewhere. The cost of building a new one in Machiasport could be more than two times greater and is expected to open in approximately two years, the Mills administration said. Liberty said the new cost estimate includes demolition of the main prison building.

On Friday, Tuell said lawmakers pressed their case for a new center on the Machiasport grounds in a meeting with Mills about a month ago. Roughly two weeks ago, he said Liberty approached them with this deal, and the lawmakers accepted it and stayed mum as details were worked out.

In a statement Friday, Mills praised the delegation for working with her administration to “rectify this situation as best we could.” Liberty said the solution took community sentiment into account, and “this community has been very accepting of the offenders there.”

“They were willing to work with us and trust the people on the ground and come up with a solution, so I’m thankful to them,” Tuell said of the administration. “It’s certainly been an up-and-down few months dealing with this, I will say that.”

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