Judge’s Ruling a ‘Victory for the Cause’

Machiasport resident and former DCF employee JJ Tibbets was interviewed by Newscenter after news of the injunction order broke on Thursday, March 15. (Photo by Sarah Craighead Dedmon)

By Sarah Craighead 

Dedmon

 

The statewide media and Downeast internet forums were on fire Thursday morning, March 15, with news that a superior court justice ordered the Department of Corrections (DOC) to reopen the Downeast Correctional Facility (DCF). 

In a television interview on Thursday afternoon, Governor LePage said he was unaware of any news relating to DCF. “No, you guys know about it,” said LePage. “I don’t know a thing about it.” His office did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday or Friday.

The Machiasport prison was closed by LePage on Feb. 9 in a surprise, pre-dawn operation that removed all of the prison inmates and terminated the positions of its 38 remaining employees. The Washington County Commissioners then countered by partnering with the town of Machiasport, attorney general Janet Mills, and two unions to file an injunction to halt the DOC’s physical dismantling of the prison.

“Obviously it’s a victory for the cause, so to speak,” said Washington County Commissioners Chairman Chris Gardner. ”It’s a bit of a vindication, if you will, for those of us who questioned the governor’s authority [to close the prison].”

In her preliminary injunction, Kennebec Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy wrote that the court found a “critical distinction” between DOC Commissioner Fitzpatrick’s complete removal of all DCF inmates and employees, and his statutory ability to transfer inmates and employees “from time to time.” Only the legislature has the authority to defund DCF, wrote the judge, and until that time, the commissioner must run it in accordance with statute.

“The Court finds that the Commissioner unilaterally closed DCF for all practical purposes,” wrote Murphy.

The injunction stopped short of granting the unions’ and attorney general’s request to restore the facility to its full operating condition it held as of Feb. 8, citing the authority held by the legislature.  “The Court has concluded that it has the authority to enforce the statute, including to mandate the continued operation of DCF….However the details of everyday operation have been statutorily delegated to the Commissioner by the Legislature.”

What happens next is anyone’s guess. “If [LePage] doesn’t appeal I would think he’d have to open it back up again,” said Rep. Will Tuell (R-E. Machias)

Rep. Bob Alley (D-Beals) believes LePage will appeal the court’s decision. “I don’t doubt that for a second,” said Alley. “He’ll wait until the last minute that he’s got and then he’ll take and appeal it so we’ll go through another two or three weeks before we get another ruling.”  

Three-pronged approach

Alley’s bill, “An Act To Remove the Age Penalty for State Retirees Working at State Correctional Institutions That Are Closing” is part of a trio of DCF-related bills put forth by members of the Washington County delegation, each one approaching a different facet of the prison closure dilemma.

Written during the 2016-17 legislative year in anticipation of a DCF closure, Alley’s bill could protect terminated employees from paying high penalties if they cannot work the 35 years required for full retirement. Alley said there are as many as a dozen DCF employees within striking distance of retirement. The bill is waiting to go to the house for a vote.

Tuell’s bill LD 1704, “An Act to Fund the Downeast Correctional Facility,” failed to receive the two-thirds majority needed for enactment as an emergency measure on Thursday, March 15. The bill would provide funding for DCF for fiscal year 2018-2019. LD 1704 has now been returned to the senate, where it will be taken up this week. 

Sen. Joyce Maker (R-Calais) has sponsored “An Act to Authorize a Prerelease Center in Washington County,” which drew dozens of Downeast supporters to Augusta on March 5, where it passed the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee with a vote of 11-1-1. During the hearing, LePage senior policy analyst Aaron Chadbourne indicated the governor’s plans to sell the DCF property and create a 20-bed prerelease facility by purchasing a new location in the Machias area, which met with mostly negative reviews. DCF can house upwards of 150 inmates.

Alley said that of all the possible scenarios, his favorite would be the reopening of the prison. “We’re hoping it just opens up so those people can come back to work and we get the group that we had there in Machiasport put back,” said Alley.

“I just think the crew and the people down there are wonderful people,” said Alley, who is impressed by how many former employees and DCF supporters have made repeated trips to Augusta to represent Washington County when needed. 

“That’s what kind of people we are, we don’t back down when we’re right,” said Alley. “We are right. [LePage] is wrong, and he needs to admit it.”