Senator Joyce Maker’s Monthly Column

Since January, Representative Will Tuell (R-East Machias) and I have been fighting tooth and nail on behalf of the Downeast Correctional Facility and the local communities that rely on the prison, and we are both committed to continue this effort for as long as we are serving the great people of Washington County in Augusta.

To say that 2017 has been a long and stressful year for those who work at the Downeast Correctional Facility and the families who depend on them would be an understatement. Eleven months have passed since the governor first proposed a biennial budget that eliminated funding for the facility, and despite the Legislature repeatedly voting to keep it running, at least for the current fiscal year, uncertainty continues to plague Downeast Correctional. 

The Legislature is the only institution with the authority to create or dismantle a correctional facility, yet without our knowledge or approval, pink slips were delivered to all 46 employees of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Bucks Harbor six months ago. Although the pink slips were then temporarily rescinded, the executive branch has begun the process to permanently close the facility, transferring a large number of prisoners from the minimum security prison to maximum security facilities and commuting the sentences of a number of prisoners to free up bed space within the Maine corrections system.

I find the way this situation has been handled to be highly unfortunate and unfair to the hard-working employees of Downeast Correctional Facility who provide a valuable service for the state of Maine.

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Fitzpatrick informed the Criminal Justice Committee that, as of May, the entire corrections system had between 40-60 open beds and that the department considers fewer than 30 beds to be a crisis situation. 

Considering that Downeast Correctional Facility has the capacity to house 100 plus inmates and the project to expand the Windham prison is still in the beginning stages, closing Downeast without an alternative facility and a solid plan would be a reckless move that puts our public safety in jeopardy, and it would create tremendous hardships for many Washington County families. 

That’s why next session the Legislature will take up Representative Tuell’s bill, LR 2502, “An Act To Fund the Downeast Correctional Facility.” 

This proposal, which would fund the facility at full staff through the next biennium (June 30, 2018), would require the Department of Corrections to submit a detailed report concerning their proposed changes for Downeast Correctional Facility to the legislative committees of jurisdiction by April 1, 2019. Included in this analysis must be the impact of changes to employee compensation and benefits and an economic and community impact analysis, as well as the department’s plans for the resulting surplus property and the impact a closure would have on other correctional facilities. 

The bill also once again clarifies that the facility must remain open and operational until the Legislature decides otherwise.

As emergency legislation, this bill will have a higher threshold for passage than an ordinary bill, and must garner the support of 2/3 of the Legislature. Once it passes, we must then find $5.4 million elsewhere in the budget to cover the cost, which will be no simple task.

While Will and I will work hard to earn the support of our colleagues, it will be important for your voices to be heard throughout the process when the time comes.

Until then, I hope that you all enjoy this holiday season and get to spend some time with those who mean the most to you. 

If you would like to contact me about LR 2502, or any other legislative issue, please call (207) 287-1505, email me at senjoyce.a.maker@gmail.com or find me on Facebook as Senator Joyce Maker.