Committee Passes Unanimous Vote to Save Jail

By Lura Jackson

 

The Downeast Correctional Facility, being the primary prison in Washington County, has been saved from closure, at least if a unanimous vote from the state’s Criminal Justice Committee holds through the Appropriations and Financial Affairs vote. The Criminal Justice Committee announced its decision on Monday, March 20th. 

“Defunding the facility would have delivered a devastating blow to the residents of Washington County,” said Joyce Maker, Senate representative from Washington County. “Words can’t express the relief we now feel.”

“It was evident in the committee room today just how much this means to our area,” said Will Tuell, representing East Machias in the House of Representatives. “2,500-plus people signed petitions to keep this open and hundreds and hundreds people rallied behind it and we’re just thrilled to the brim.”

The public support that the correctional facility garnered may be surprising to some on the grounds that it represents a place to house the unlawful, but as is the case with most things in Washington County, the facility means many things to the greater community of the county. The inmate population at the facility is just under 150 prisoners, maintained by a staff of 55 workers. If the facility closed, its prisoners would either need to be sent elsewhere, encroaching on the prison population in other parts of the state, or they would be released with ankle monitors, as proposed in the governor’s budget which outlined the closure. All future prisoners would need to be transferred a greater distance by law enforcement personnel. The workers at the prison would be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, which are a precious commodity in a rural county beset by high unemployment and limited opportunities. 

Perhaps the most significant contribution of the Downeast Correctional Facility, however, is the tens of thousands of community service hours made by its prisoners to businesses and nonprofits throughout the county. As part of the facility’s work-release rehabilitation program, prisoners are encouraged to assist the community with projects that include painting and rehabilitating buildings, equipment repair projects, and filling in as seasonal workers, positions that often provide the workers with a wage equivalent to non-prison personnel. In many cases, particularly for the nonprofits that have received assistance from prisoners, the work completed was work that would otherwise never be done due to the costs involved. Prisoners benefit from the rehabilitation program by learning trades such as welding, upholstery, building trades, and firefighting, roles that have all played an integral part in maintaining the community and keeping it safe. Numerous prisoners have found success returning to their communities after their release as a direct result of the facility’s vocational programs.

The list of community service projects completed by the prisoners is staggering. Prisoners rehabilitated the train station in Machias, moved the town hall to its current location, fabricated and restored 40 fire engines deployed to towns such as Calais, Perry, and Lubec, and routinely assist with snow plowing and mowing public areas such as cemeteries.

This isn’t the first time the Downeast Correctional Facility has been targeted for closure by the state, and it isn’t likely to be the last. As Representative Tuell says, though, “If we have to come back and fight this battle again, we’ll do just that.”