Downeasters to Descend on Augusta in Support of Prerelease Bill

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

In the wake of LePage’s sudden closure of the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF) on Friday, Feb. 9, a new public Facebook page has become the rallying point for a grassroots effort to save the prison. The “Save Downeast Correctional Facility” page is run by Melissa Hinerman of Machiasport and has more than 3,500 members. A group of DCF supporters used the page to coordinate travel to Augusta for a public hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) has sponsored LD 1841, “An Act To Authorize a Prerelease Facility in Washington County.” The bill will be discussed at a public hearing held by the criminal justice committee. The bill is classified as an emergency measure and needed the approval of the legislative council to be considered in this session. Eight of the council’s ten members supported LD 1841.  House minority leader, gubernatorial candidate and UMM alumnus Rep. Ken Fredette (R-Newport) opposed the measure, as did assistant minority leader Ellie Esling (R-New Gloucester). Maker said that the exact verbiage of the bill is still under construction and will be finalized before the mid-week hearing. 

In 2015 Governor LePage signed LD 1447, a bill to issue funding for a facility owned by the department of corrections (DOC) in Washington County, and to fund repairs and improvements to the Maine Correctional Center in South Windham. Though the state has already spent $15 million toward the South Windham facility, no steps have been taken to ensure a continued DOC presence in Washington County. 

At least 38 jobs were eliminated with the prison’s closure, but the financial impacts will likely extend farther due to DCF’s work-release program which provided valuable paid and volunteer labor to area businesses.

Hinerman said that she’s going to prepare a small speech to read at the public hearing, which she will attend with her boyfriend JJ Tibbetts, who was laid off from DCF during the most recent closure. “I am going to Augusta because what has been done is a complete injustice, and I’m fighting for my hometown, and my home county,” said Hinerman. “It’s ridiculous.”

Hinerman recently discovered a series of three DCF video tours made for local television roughly 10 years ago. She said the videos show a comfortable, well-run facility, contrary to perceptions that DCF was past its physical prime. “It really gave an overview of what it looks like,” said Hinerman, who was especially impressed with the woodworking, sewing equipment and inmates’ dormitories. “They look just like my college dorm rooms.”  The video tours are posted to Save Downeast Correctional Facility, or can be viewed on www.genotv.com.

Helen’s Restaurant owners Julie and David Barker will also attend the hearing in support of creating a prerelease facility in Washington County. “The workforce here is not very large. So [hiring inmates for] seasonal jobs, those are great opportunities for businesses to take advantage of,” said Julie Barker. “We have had a great experience with DCF in the past, already doing [work release], I think it’s vital to having more business in Washington County,” said Julie Barker.

Though Helen’s did not directly rely on DCF employees, Barker is concerned for local suppliers that did, especially their blueberry supplier, Welch Farm in Roque Bluffs. “I don’t know what his position is going to be,” she said. “Maybe I won’t be able to buy any fresh, local blueberries from him.” Helen’s blueberry pie is renowned with locals and tourists alike. “[His blueberries are] an amazing product, and they’re as local as we can get,” said Barker. 

“That’s what we’re about, so it’s very important to us.”

Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias) is a co-sponsor on Maker’s bill, and is also working in support of legislation already in play before the surprise closure. L.D. 1704 would have ensured one more year of funding for DCF, and passed the house 87-59, and the senate 31-3. Falling short of the two-thirds needed to veto-proof the bill, Tuell is encouraging concerned citizens to reach out to representatives who opposed the bill to change their minds in advance of another vote.

“My bill for DCF has still not come up for another vote in the House,” wrote Tuell. “It is currently tabled on unfinished business, so please continue to write, email, and call folks who voted no. It is very important that you do so as we want to show people that this situation is not going away.” 

Wednesday’s public hearing will be broadcast live on the criminal justice committee’s webpage: http://legislature.maine.gov/committee/#Audio/436. It begins at 11 a.m.