Senator Joyce Maker

 

Ten months ago the 127th Legislature joined together and supported the governor’s bill, LD 1447, which authorized a bond of up to $149.5 million for improvements at jail and prison facilities in Windham and Washington County. This new law gave hope to the residents of Washington County.

But a lot can change in a year’s time. Earlier this month, I stood before the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee along with area businesses and community members to testify in opposition to a proposal within Governor LePage’s 2018-2019 Biennial Budget that would eliminate all state funding for the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF).

This facility has been under fire frequently over the last several years, which has been tough on the 55 people who make their living at the prison, the municipalities and non-profits that benefit from tens of thousands of hours of community service, the area businesses that utilize the prison’s work-release program to cover seasonal staffing demands and the prisoners themselves who learn new skills and make connections while serving their time at DCF. 

The facility offers a variety of vocational programs that teach prisoners new skills and keep them engaged during their incarceration doing important tasks like sewing all of the jeans and boxers worn by inmates throughout the prison system, working at local wreath businesses that participate in the Wreaths Across America Program that lays Christmas wreaths at the graves of our nation’s fallen soldiers at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and fixing up churches such as Machias Christian Fellowship.

And they aren’t providing all of these services to the area for free. While incarcerated, prisoners are paid an average of $10 per hour. A portion of the income goes back to the State to pay for their room and board, a portion is set aside as savings to support them upon their release, a portion goes to restitution for their victims and, if applicable, a portion goes towards child support. 

Washington County isn’t the easiest place to squeak out a living or to run a business. Much of the opportunity is of a seasonal nature, requiring businesses to take on a large workforce for a short period of time while keeping a skeletal crew throughout the rest of the year. 

The area also faces demographic issues and rampant substance abuse problems that can make it difficult for businesses to recruit a dependable workforce. That’s why several businesses made the drive to Augusta to express just how much they’ve come to rely on the prison for a reliable workforce. In committee, Cherryfield Foods said, “Currently we are recruiting for eight positions at the plant. We have had six applicants with one potential candidate.” 

They also said that having the prison has allowed them to hire locally during the picking season rather than rely on immigrant workers. They said, “In the last couple of years, the annual payroll to work release employees has exceeded $600,000 per year with 20%, or over $250,000 in total going to the General Fund the last two years.” They went on to say that, “In the last couple of years we have employed six of the work release employees after their term is completed. Currently we have one who is a supervisor and another who is studying to become a licensed boiler operator. “

Another regional employer, David Whitney, also traveled to Augusta to share his experiences employing inmates from DCF. He said, “My experience with these individuals is that they’re extraordinarily appreciative for the opportunity. They’re very content to be at work. They come to work and they stay at work and they are very happy to be there, and they’re very respectful.”

The potential options for what’s to come of these prisoners if DCF were to be defunded are unsatisfactory at best. 

The first option is that we release prisoners with ankle bracelets. This concerns me as these are individuals who have been convicted of a crime. Are we becoming soft on crime? Without input from those victims affected, I could not support such a plan. 

The other option is to place these prisoners in a facility where they would be released to work as needed.  But, DCF already does an outstanding job providing this service. I don’t see how there will be any cost savings in reinventing the wheel.

  The proposal to eliminate funding for the facility could be devastating to Washington County. As the Legislature continues to work through the budget, I will do everything in my power to fight to keep the funding for this important facility in place.

If you would like to comment on any legislative matter, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I can be reached at senjoyce.a.maker@gmail.com or by phone at 287-1505.