Surprise Prison Closure Prompts Damage Control Efforts

The Downeast Correctional Facility was abruptly closed in the early morning of February 9th in a decision by Governor Paul LePage that surprised the county - and particularly the prison's employees - with its suddenness. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

Only the legislature can formally close a state prison, but Governor LePage effectively closed Machiasport’s Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) when he ordered the removal of its 63 prisoners on Friday, Feb. 5, and issued pink slips to its remaining 38 employees. The action followed a recommendation from the state’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday to keep the facility open with a vote of 11-1-1. 

Now, state representatives and county commissioners are exploring what can be done to minimize the damage. 

In the predawn hours, prison employees were turned away from the facility and told their positions were terminated effective March 3. State police accompanied vehicles brought to remove the prisoners, and the governor’s office confirmed that a state police plane was also sent to oversee the operation.

Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner said that the commissioners voted last year to keep their “legal options open” as they pertained to DCF. “We never thought it would come to this,” said Gardner. “We are prepared to take whatever steps will be necessary to ensure the governor’s unilateral actions cause no further harm to the facility.”

Gardner said that many heard LePage comment on the possibility of demolishing the prison to remove all possibility of its future use. “Normally, we would consider that hyperbole. But this governor’s actions as of late have shown that nothing is beyond the pale with him,” said Gardner.

The commissioners are exploring what legal methods can be used to protect the property while the legislative process moves forward.

According to a town representative, the town of Machiasport is also seeking recourse.

Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias) and Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) said that they are concerned for the employees who lost their positions. “Employees do not get severance,” said Tuell. “My bill would have planned that out, if there was going to be a closure.”

Tuell submitted L.D. 1704, “An Act To Fund the Downeast Correctional Facility” to the criminal justice committee last week, where it passed 11-1-1. Maker was a co-sponsor on the bill, which would have ensured one additional year of funding for DCF.

Tuell said he has heard from Maine Senate President Mike Thibodeau who is supportive of the prison, and together they hope to move the bill into the house quickly. “So, my bill still being there, I would hope that if we can’t get it reopened, then we can at least do right by the employees,” said Tuell.

Maker said that there’s nothing the legislature can do quickly. “That’s what concerns me most, to be honest,” she said.

Questioned motives

Questions surround the governor’s rationale behind the closure, as the Department of Corrections (DOC) already has a shortage of beds. 

According to the DOC website, as of Monday, Feb. 5, the state had a total of 136 available beds for male inmates, 86 of which were at DCF.  Subtracting those 86 beds and 11 from the Maine State Prison where DCF inmates may not be housed due to their prisoner category, Maine had only 39 beds available for the 63 inmates removed from DCF, leaving the DOC system short by 24 beds.

“We are definitely short of beds,” said Maker. “That’s the biggest thing I try to tell people.”

Though he actively campaigned for LePage, Gardner also questions the governor’s rationale, and disputes LePage’s assertion that the prison is not cost effective. “We keep hearing five million dollars,” he said. “That’s back when they had 80 employees, that’s back before they made the improvements to the heating system.” 

Both Gardner and Maker said they were impressed that prison management made significant capital improvements to the facility using savings they created in the operating budget, without requesting additional funds. “Because that’s how we do it in Washington County,” said Maker.

In 2017, Sunrise County Economic Council (SCEC) Director Charles Rudelitch submitted testimony stating that DCF was among the most efficient facilities in the state, and would be seen to be more efficient if the state took the prisoner’s work-release income and tax payments into account. Twenty percent of the inmates’ work-release earnings go to the state each year, approximately $250,000. These dollars went into the state’s general fund.

On Jan. 28, Rudelitch submitted additional SCEC analysis in support of L.D. 1704. 

The analysis projects that closing the prison eliminates 77 jobs from the Washington County economy. “Fifty-five of these lost jobs are direct layoffs of DCF staff and related medical personnel,” wrote Rudelitch. “An additional 22 jobs in Washington County would be lost due to reduced spending by those DCF employee households.”

Rudelitch notes that these numbers do not take into account the loss of labor that DCF inmates contribute to local government and nonprofit organizations, or the negative impact on local businesses which hire DCF inmates as seasonal employees. 

“Taken together, these job losses would reduce the economic output of Washington County by about $8.4 million annually,” he wrote.

Gardner said he thinks the governor acted to close the prison for personal, not practical, reasons. “It’s overreach. This is a person who is utilizing their position to exercise their personal will, that goes well beyond bullying,” said Gardner. “It’s a disgrace to the office.”

Maker said she is discouraged, especially on behalf of prison employees. “Do I think that Washington County will overcome this whole thing? I’m sure we will,” she said. “But it does not make sense to me to do this.”